This week, my colleagues on The Post’s editorial board took aim at Virginia’s ongoing problem with drivers license suspensions over unpaid court debts.
The problem with laws that link the suspension of driver’s licenses to the failure to pay court debt was spotlighted in a recent report examining the practice in Virginia. The Legal Aid Justice Center found that, as of December 2017, nearly 1 million Virginians (974,349) had their licenses suspended at least in part due to court debt, and nearly two-thirds of those (638,003) were suspended solely for that reason. That translates into about 1 in 6 drivers in the commonwealth. Payment plans were found to be ineffective, because the underlying issue is not drivers’ willingness to pay fines but the fact that they simply don’t have the money.
Virginia unfortunately is not alone in suspending or revoking licenses to punish people for failure to pay court debt. A state-by-state analysis by the Legal Aid Justice Center last fall found that 43 states and the District of Columbia suspend driver’s licenses because of unpaid debt. Only four states require a determination of the person’s ability to pay. Some, such as Virginia, make the suspensions mandatory, while others, including the District and Maryland, allow for discretion, albeit automated systems make its use rare. Virtually all states that suspend licenses for unpaid debt do so indefinitely, with rules that prevent reinstatement until full payment is made.
What results is a vicious cycle. You can’t afford to pay an initial court fine for a parking ticket or a shoplifting charge, so you lose your license. That means you can’t drive to work or hold a job that requires a license — which makes you even less able to pay your court debt. If you drive without a license, you may get into more serious trouble. Meanwhile, you can’t drive your children to school or to their medical appointments.
This problem has received a lot of national attention, going back to the uprising in Ferguson, Mo. Unfortunately, states and municipalities (more the latter than the former) have become too dependent on the revenue. The media attention has spurred reform in some places, and questionable reforms in others, such as outsourcing debt collection to private companies. But many states and municipalities have been reluctant to change at all. Here at The Watch, we’ve noted that in Louisiana, the funding for public defender offices comes primarily from court fees — and only those convicted are assessed those fees. Perversely, this means that every time a public defender wins a case, it means less funding for that attorney’s office.
In some cities, outstanding government debt not only means revocation of a driver’s license but also can make it impossible to obtain occupational licenses for jobs such as cutting hair or driving a cab. So because someone owes the city money, the city has made it impossible for that person to earn the money to pay the city back. A recent North Carolina study found that over the past 20 years, court fees in that state have risen by 400 percent, which is probably why about 1 in 5 inmates at the county jail in Charlotte is incarcerated for failing to pay fines. In fact, since just 2010, nearly every state has raised or added court fees or fines.
Sadly, we’re now starting to see backlash against even the slow-moving and tepid reforms wrought by the reporting after Ferguson. Earlier this year, for example, Attorney General Jeff Sessions revoked an Obama-era advisory to municipal judges to use restraint when imposing fines and fees on the poor, sending the poor to jail for not paying those fines and fees, and generally using the municipal court system as a source of revenue for local government. On cue, a Missouri state lawmaker recently introduced a bill that would reauthorize city judges to jail poor people for unpaid fines, essentially undoing the reforms won in St. Louis not long after they were enacted.