For the District, a city with a self-styled progressive government, the policy change was long overdue, said Ariel Levinson-Waldman, president of Tzedek DC, a nonprofit group that advocates for low-income residents.
“In this regard, we have had a regressive, counterproductive and punitive policy for many years,” Levinson-Waldman said.
The bill, which the council passed unanimously, heads to the desk of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and will undergo congressional review. Bowser has not said whether she will sign it.
The changes are “an important step forward,” Levinson-Waldman said, because D.C. residents with suspended licenses will no longer have to choose between breaking the law and driving to work or the grocery store.
The legislation would reinstate licenses that have been suspended for unpaid tickets or missed hearings. It would also allow offenders to pay off all or part of what they owe through community service.
If the bill becomes law, the District “will be at the forefront of reform,” said Lisa Foster, a retired California judge and co-director of the nonprofit Fines and Fees Justice Center.
The bill also extends to 60 days from 30 days the period after which fines for unpaid tickets double. But since that provision will cost the city money, it won’t take effect until officials find a way to pay for it, which isn’t likely to happen until the next budget cycle.
Drivers could still have their licenses suspended for dangerous driving or criminal convictions.
From 2010 to 2017, the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles suspended about 126,000 licenses due to unpaid traffic tickets, according to public data obtained by Tzedek DC through a public records request.
“That is astonishing and ought to be unacceptable anywhere,” the group wrote in testimony it submitted to the council.
License suspension is supposed to encourage offenders to pay their tickets or attend traffic hearings. But anti-poverty advocates say that is paradoxical: Drivers who cannot afford to pay a fine and lose their licenses can no longer drive to work to earn income to pay the debt.
Several states and cities recently have drawn similar conclusions.
In Maine on Monday, lawmakers overturned a veto from the Gov. Paul LePage (R) and preserved a law they passed ending license suspensions for drivers’ failure to pay fines. Lawmakers in California, Mississippi and New Orleans have recently passed similar legislation.
In Tennessee this month, a federal district judge ruled that the state’s suspension of driver’s licenses from people who can’t pay fines was unconstitutional.
Nationwide efforts to end license suspensions have gained momentum in the three years since the Justice Department published an investigation that found law enforcement in Ferguson, Mo., used fines to raise revenue for state and local governments.
“People are caught in a cycle of punishment and poverty that is almost impossible to get out of,” Foster said. “What we’re seeing is that policymakers are realizing this is not a good solution and it’s creating more problems than it’s worth.”
Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who chairs the transportation committee and co-introduced the bill, said the Ferguson case was a “catalyst” that prompted a reexamination of the city’s most punitive laws.
Reforming the license suspension law is part of an “increased awareness of how many laws we have that disproportionately punish people who are poor,” Cheh said in an interview. “It’s part of raising our consciousness about how petty consequences multiply.”
The city has tools other than license suspension to encourage offenders to pay their fines, Cheh said, including withholding local tax returns and a “clean-hands policy” that means residents can be denied permits and cannot renew their driver’s licenses if they have unpaid tickets.
Also on Tuesday, the council gave final approval to a bill that allows the city’s drivers to choose a gender-neutral identifier on their driver’s licenses, something the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles has permitted since July 2017.