Aleks Kajstura is the legal director at the Prison Policy Initiative, which challenges overcriminalization and mass incarceration in the United States.
You’d expect to lose your driver’s license if you drove dangerously, but what if you ran afoul of the tax code, mail regulations or controlled-substance statutes? Sadly, in Virginia, that’s not a hypothetical question.
Virginia currently suspends nearly 39,000 driver’s licenses annually for drug offenses unrelated to driving. This is a relic of the war on drugs, and, while most states have opted out of the federal law that created these automatic suspensions, Virginia motors on.
Congress’s law was fairly simple: If a state wanted to get highway funding, it had to suspend the driver’s licenses of people convicted of certain drug crimes — again, offenses completely unrelated to driving. Curiously, a state could just officially opt out and still receive the money.
At the height of the war on drugs, states jumped at the idea of piling on penalties for drug offenses. The decades since have taught us that such tactics are ineffective as deterrents. Still, Virginia and 11 other states have kept these laws in place, burdening tens of thousands of people every year for no public benefit.
Not only do these laws not work, but they also cause harm. Suspending driver’s licenses for non-traffic offenses decreases public safety on the road while increasing recidivism for those affected. At the very least, Virginia taxpayers are spending a lot of money on making themselves less safe.
The law does nothing to increase safety and eats into the time that the Department of Motor Vehicles can spend on issues that are related to driver safety. That is why the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, essentially an association of DMVs, is on the record against automatic license suspensions.
Similarly, these laws are a drain on law enforcement resources that would otherwise be focused on traffic safety. Illustrating the scope of the problem, a study in Washington state calculated that state troopers spent 70,848 hours dealing with license suspensions for non-driving offenses. That time has consequences. A study of law enforcement in eight states confirmed that when non-traffic license suspensions increase, less driving-related traffic enforcement takes place.
Apart from being a direct drain on taxpayers and reducing road safety, these laws hinder reentry for people convicted of a drug offense. Suspending someone’s license sets him or her up for failure. It limits job opportunities, cuts them off from their family and community — basically removing a safety net.
For most people, a driver’s license is required to make a living and care for their families. Public transportation is often not a reasonable alternative for low-income people, who bear the brunt of these license suspensions. In the Richmond metropolitan area, for example, only about a quarter of jobs are accessible via public transit for people living in low-income communities.
And for people on probation, who are commonly required to hold down a job, the choice is even more distressing: Either get caught driving with a suspended license and end up in jail, or lose your job and end up in jail. So it’s no wonder that about 75 percent of people with suspended licenses continue to drive.
Driver’s license suspensions for non-driving offenses are indefensible: They decrease public safety, waste government resources and further disadvantage people convicted of drug crimes.
Since 2009, seven more states have stopped automatic license suspensions for drug-related non-traffic offenses. Virginia should take advantage of the new legislative session to stop automatically suspending driver’s licenses for nondriving drug offenses to unburden the public of this counterproductive law.