How Can You Pay If You Can’t Earn? Suspending Driver’s Licenses for Failure to Pay/Appear in California

June 1, 2017
Guest Post

*This piece is part of the ACSblog Symposium: 2017 ACS National Convention. The symposium will consider topics featured at the three day convention, scheduled for June 8-10, 2017. Learn more about the Convention here

**This post is based on written testimony for a 5/15/17 California State Senate hearing on SB 185.

by Karin D. Martin, PhD, Assistant Professor of Public Management, John Jay College of Criminal Justice & The Graduate Center, City University of New York

Monetary penalties—fines, fees, surcharges, restitution and any other financial liability from contact with the criminal justice system—are a ubiquitous and growing feature of punishment in the U.S. On the one hand, these sanctions have the potential to achieve the aims of punishment with far fewer economic and social costs than incarceration. On the other hand, monetary sanctions produce disproportionate harm—particularly among those least able to pay—at the same time that they create a perverse incentive for courts, municipalities and other entities that can both create and collect monetary sanctions.

How these sanctions are enforced can be quite particularly problematic. Jurisdictions do everything from entering civil judgments to revoking or extending probation/parole or incarcerating people for non-payment. Unpaid debt also subjects people to regular court summons, the issuance of warrants and pursuit by private collection agencies. Many jurisdictions also do something that too often directly undermines people’s ability to pay their court-ordered debt: suspend driver’s licenses.

California stands out in that, over an eight-year period, nearly one-sixth of all driver’s licenses in the state were suspended for failure to appear or failure to pay. Fortunately, the California legislature is now currently considering a bill that would limit the suspension of drivers’ licenses.

The need to substantially revise policy in this domain is urgent, given that suspending licenses for failures to pay creates or exacerbates three interconnected problems:

  1. Driver’s license suspensions disproportionately affect African-Americans. The April 2016 report from the Back on the Road California coalition, Stopped, Fined, Arrested – Racial Bias in Policing and Traffic Courts in California, found that in the City and County of San Francisco, African-Americans are 5.8 percent of the population, but 48.7 percent of the arrestees for a “failure to appear/pay” traffic court warrants. In contrast, White people are 41.2 percent of San Francisco’s residents but only 22.7 percent of those arrested for driving with a suspended license. This amounts to African-Americans being overrepresented by a factor of 8.4, while White residents are underrepresented by a factor of 0.6.
  2. Driver’s license suspensions create significant obstacles to employment, child care, education and drives people into the underground economy. As the 2017-18 Governor’s Budget Summary notes, “[t]here does not appear to be a strong connection between suspending someone’s driver’s license and collecting their fine or penalty. Often, the primary consequence of a driver’s license suspension is the inability to legally drive to work or take one’s children to school.” To be clear, many people must travel by car in order to reach their place of employment. Many people have jobs that require a car, a valid driver’s licenses, or both. Moreover, the structure of many people’s lives requires driving not only to work, but to access child/elder care, healthcare and education (for themselves or their children). My own research has found that far from compelling payment of court-ordered debt, depriving people of legal means of driving simply eliminates their means for earning enough to actually pay the debt. As a result, people have myriad incentives to work “off the books,” with the additional consequence of reducing tax revenue.
  3. Suspending driver’s licenses for failure to pay obscures the ultimate question: How much does doing so actually cost? Although it may seem that the state’s system of fines, fees and penalty assessments brings in much needed revenue, nobody actually knows the other half of the equation: the amount expended to administer, collect and enforce the system of monetary sanctions upon which the practice of suspending licenses depends. Even a quick estimate of the costs of personnel, infrastructure, materials, necessary to deal with the 4.2 million actions to suspend licenses for failure to pay (between 2006 and 2013) suggests that this process consumes enormous court and law enforcement resources. Moreover, my research shows that current policy increases reliance on an obviously unreliable source of funding, thereby denying courts—a coequal branch of government—the resources they need to operate effectively and efficiently.

California is part of a national trend of increasing the number and magnitude of monetary sanctions, with a commensurate rise in unpaid court-ordered debt. The legislation now being considered ensures that all people, regardless of their income level, can satisfy court debt and move forward with their lives. Millions of people across the country would benefit from similar policy changes elsewhere.