Going through the legal system can be expensive, even for people charged with nonviolent misdemeanors, with fines, public defender fees, probation fees and other costs running into hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars, says the New York Times. Many people cannot pay. As a result, some states have begun suspending driver's licenses for unsatisfied debts stemming from any criminal case, from misdemeanors like marijuana possession to felonies in which court costs can reach into the tens of thousands of dollars. In Tennessee, almost 90,000 driver's licenses have been suspended since 2011.
Tennessee practices have become part of a broader debate over criminal justice debt since a U.S. Justice Department report faulted Ferguson, Mo., for a law enforcement system that focused aggressively on raising revenue and jailing people who could not pay. Many drivers who have lost their licenses in Tennessee, too poor to pay what they owe and living in places with limited public transportation, have driven anyway, resulting in courts so clogged with “driving while suspended” cases that some judges dispatch them 10 at a time. Tennessee is not alone in the practice: Five of the 15 states with the largest prison populations have it, says Alicia Bannon of the Brennan Center for Justice. Most states also suspend licenses for failure to pay traffic fines, another policy that critics say creates a quicksand of debt. The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators has complained that suspensions should be reserved for dangerous drivers, not indebted ones.