For Henry, the toughest thing about life after prison hasn’t been learning new skills, the dangers of working in construction or even his criminal record. His biggest hurdle has been not having a driver’s license, the result of a license suspension for about $700 in unpaid traffic fines he still owed when he left prison. Without a valid license, getting to class on time has been a daily challenge, and his prospects for finding a job he can get to without access to reliable transportation are dim. “It’s the weight of the tickets,” Henry said. “You can’t drive and be productive.”
To arrive before class at 7:45 a.m., dropping off his 5-year-old son at day care on the way, Henry leaves their home in West Baltimore at least two hours early, in the predawn dark, because the buses often run late. “I have no new arrests, I don’t hang out in the streets,” Henry said. “I pick up my son when I leave here, and then we’re home, and we get up and do the same thing the next day. Get up, drop him off, then I’m here. Get out, pick him up, home. That’s the everyday struggle.”
In recent years, the country has made major progress on criminal justice reform, particularly through better sentencing practices and less reliance on cash bail. In 2015, state and federal prisons released roughly 641,000 former inmates into their communities, leading to the largest decline in the prison population since 1978. Most recently, Congress passed the bipartisan First Step Act, which softened harsh federal sentencing laws and authorized more funding for programs to prevent recidivism; on Monday, President Trump pledged to “fully fund” the program.
What’s still missing, however, are efforts to end other obstacles to former inmates’ successful reintegration. Among the biggest barriers are unforgiving state and local policies in many jurisdictions allowing the suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees. For too many ex-offenders like Henry, their journeys to reentry are sabotaged before they begin, when the suspension of a license means the denial of a chance to find and keep a job that could lead to self-sufficiency, and when the financial pressure of debts owed to the state can prove insurmountable.
Employment helps ensure that ex-offenders don’t end up back in jail. One Manhattan Institute study found that fewer than a third of nonviolent ex-offenders who were enrolled in an intensive job-training program were rearrested within three years of their release, compared with about half of former inmates who didn’t get that help. Similarly, a five-year study by the Indiana Department of Correction found employment to be “an effective buffer for reducing recidivism among ex-offenders.”
Access to reliable transportation, however, is pivotal to the job prospects of many ex-offenders — just as it is for most Americans. A 2007 Justice Department study found that among nearly 1,000 former prisoners interviewed about their post-release lives, 83 percent reported lacking a driver’s license, making it among their top-ranked needs. The Census Bureau reports that 86 percent of American workers drive to their jobs, and having a car and a license is often a prerequisite for finding and keeping a job, especially in places lacking reliable public transit — or any public transit.
Americans’ dependence on driving to work makes suspending licenses for unpaid fines and fees generally bad policy. Yet more than 40 states allow suspensions for the nonpayment of court debt, according to the Fines and Fees Justice Center. An analysis by The Washington Post estimated that at least 7 million Americans have lost their licenses because of unpaid traffic fines. Low-income Americans bear the brunt of these suspensions, and while the percentage of them who are former offenders isn’t available, ex-offenders generally face the greatest obstacles and have the fewest resources.
At Baltimore’s Center for Sustainable Careers, a nonprofit organization, license suspensions from unpaid fines and fees are all too common among clients, said Executive Director Eli Allen. These sanctions typically stem from traffic violations, court costs or misdemeanor citations, along with the late penalties, towing charges and other fees that pile up, including the fee required to reinstate a license. Allen’s staffers spend hundreds of hours helping trainees resolve these penalties. “We’re a transportation program that happens to do job training,” as he puts it.
In Henry’s case, advocates from the center helped him go to court to convert his outstanding penalties into 35 hours of community service, a process that took three months, according to case manager Sarah Kennedy. After Henry completed his hours, Kennedy accompanied him to one more appearance before the judge — to get his suspension lifted so he could retake his driver’s test.
There are others, however, whom the center hasn’t yet been able to help. Arnold Coleman, another of the center’s clients, faces a $3,000 debt from compounded impound fees assessed when his car was confiscated by the police after a traffic stop. According to the Baltimore City Department of Transportation, towing charges are $130 to $140, plus an “initial storage charge” of $50, an “administrative fee” of $40 and impound charges of $15 a day. Coleman decided to abandon his car at the impound lot because he couldn’t afford to get it out, but the city went after him anyway. He carries with him a crumpled invoice from the city, which he pulls from his pocket. For him, the challenges are much bigger than not being able to drive. “How do I save $3,000 and pay my rent and help my mother out?” he said. “I guess I have to pick up an extra job and work harder and see if I can work it out. I did the math on this yesterday. If I pay $50 a month, I’ll be paying this thing for at least three years; if I do $100 a month, it’ll be at least two years.”
Perhaps the most pernicious impact of a license suspension is that it may ultimately encourage illegal behavior — the opposite of its intended effect. Until his license was restored recently, Dominique Johnson, another center trainee, said he had been “driving dirty” for six months because he couldn’t afford the fines he owed. “I got pulled over three times, and each time they would take my car and take it to the impound,” he said. “It’s a snowball effect. Once you get that first one, you get in a hole you can’t get out of because they keep piling stuff on. What can you do? And I’m not about to stop driving my car, because I’ve got to earn money.”
Coleman, the trainee who owes $3,000, admits that the size of his debts sometimes tempts him to fall back into the habits that first got him into trouble. “With this fine, your hand start itching and you start thinking, ‘What am I going to do to get this money?’ ” he said. “I guess I need to keep accumulating rather than go back to hustling and all that stuff again, because I’m trying to move out of that and get past that, but sometimes the thought comes to your mind.”
Some jurisdictions do recognize the problems caused by fines, fees and license suspensions. For example, Massachusetts, Georgia, Delaware, Indiana, Ohio, Oklahoma and Wisconsin have eliminated some or all automatic license suspensions for certain offenses, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. California held a statewide amnesty for suspended drivers from 2015 to 2017 before ending all suspensions for failure to pay in 2018, a move the District of Columbia also made last year.
Local jurisdictions have also worked to restore driver’s licenses. In Wisconsin, the Racine Municipal Court held a “license recovery day” last November for drivers to petition for the restoration of their licenses. Advocates are also suing to end license suspension policies. In Virginia, where 1 million residents have reportedly had their licenses suspended, plaintiffs with the help of the Legal Aid Justice Center have filed a federal suit against the state, challenging the constitutionality of these suspensions.
Baltimore, however, not only suspends licenses for nonpayment of fines and fees, it expects to triple its revenue in fiscal 2019 from the deployment of more than 50 new speed and red-light cameras throughout the city. According to its budget, the city anticipates $21.3 million in traffic camera revenue this year, compared with $7.9 million in 2018. Speed-camera tickets will cost $40 each, while red-light violations will cost $75. Baltimore isn’t alone. Since 2010, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 47 states and numerous cities have raised their civil and criminal fees. In New York City, for instance, revenue from fines totaled $993 million in fiscal 2016 — a 35 percent increase over the past decade.
This troubling trend means that many more ex-offenders — whose employment and self-sufficiency benefit society — will find themselves in circumstances like George Henry’s.
As for Henry, he at least is on his way toward overcoming the hurdles that fines and fees had put in his path. “With the grace of God and the help of this program, I got it settled,” he said. “It was a weight on my shoulders for years. I’m getting my hours done, I’m getting my license, I’ve got nothing holding me back now.” This past week, Henry retook his driver’s test. He passed.
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