The US incarcerates a greater share of its citizens than any other country on planet Earth. For millions of Americans, that sprawling criminal justice system is an engine of poverty and inequality. In some ways, that’s obvious — even a minor criminal record makes it harder to land a job and decreases one’s lifetime earning potential. But in other cases, the mechanisms by which people get sucked into poverty are less intuitive.
At The Atlantic Cities, Mike Riggs looks at one of the latter: the widespread suspension of driver’s licenses for various offenses unrelated to driving.
A Republican lawmaker in Florida is setting his sights on reversing a policy that devastates the poor but gets little attention: suspending a person’s driver’s license. In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford gave a brief-but-brilliant master class on what criminal justice reformers call “collateral consequences.”
“They forgot to show up in court,” Weatherford told the paper of the 167,000 Floridians who had their licenses suspended in 2013 for reasons unrelated to driving. “They didn’t pay their child support. There’s this snowball effect. They lose their driver’s license. Now they can’t get to work. They get pulled over on a suspended driver’s license. Now they go to jail. Now they owe $4,000. It creates poverty. It holds people down.”
As Weatherford notes, you don’t have to be jailed or even convicted to get pulled into poverty’s revolving door. The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators in 2012 found 59 offenses unrelated to driving that could lead to an American having her license suspended. Bouncing a check will cost you your license in 11 states; failing to pay child support will cost you your license in 43 states. Iowa will suspend your license for being drunk in public, Vermont will suspend it for burning trash, Nevada will take it for failing to pay alimony, and Florida will take it for failing to submit to a genetic (read: paternity) test. Montana will suspend your driver’s license (and any other state license you have) if you default on your student loans. The irony of course is that if a person can’t or won’t meet their financial obligations, losing their driver’s license — and the privileges that come with it — will only make meeting those obligations (and others) harder.