Pressure by cash-hungry municipalities to aggressively ticket and fine drivers, and a web of coercive license laws on the books in nearly every state, has led to millions of American struggling to pay fines and fees they can’t possibly afford, according to Lisa Foster, a retired California Superior Court judge.
Speaking at John Jay College Thursday, Foster charged that license revocations imposed because of failure to pay driving penalties or other violations of court procedures created “a cycle of punishment and poverty that keeps people trapped.”
Foster, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a New York-based research and advocacy group working to change the practice, municipal authorities increasingly relied on the revenue generated by fines and fees to pay costs ranging from court clerks’ salaries and autism treatment to fish and wildlife services.
In effect, she told a conference of journalists, practitioners and advocates, “they’re depending on you breaking the law to break even.”
Tara Mikkilineni, a Civil Rights Corps attorney who has won an early judgment in the Tennessee courts in an effort to halt this practice, added that under the system low-income people are being “punished for their poverty.”
Analysis of statistics on suspended licenses in the state revealed that 90 percent are low income.
“They are trapped—they can’t earn the money to pay back the debt,” she said.
The speakers made their comments at the opening of a two-day conference on fines and fees, entitled “Cash Register Justice,” at John Jay College in New York.
Driver’s license suspension and other coercive measures related to driving subject poor Americans, many of them people of color, to a Kafka-esque world of never-ending fines, the conference was told.
A license suspension can be the end result of a cascading series of violations that may have started with a parking ticket, a broken headlight, or even a missing light on a bicycle. But it effectively undermines an individual who is reliant on a car to get to work and earn the income to pay the fine—and could lead to a jail term.
Research data suggests that in May 2018, an estimated seven million Americans had their driver’s licenses suspended because of unpaid fines and fees, the conference was told. And yet 85 percent of Americans must drive to get to work.
Some communities have virtually no public transportation, making a driver’s license essential not just for employment, but for picking up children at school, seeing doctors—and appearing at court. (Failure to appear at a court date subjects an individual to more fines, and a possible jail term.)
In the U.S., 43 states have laws that suspend driver’s licenses, revoke the licenses, or deny renewals for unpaid fines and fees. Defenders of these practices claim that this is the only coercive tool at their disposal, but Foster pointed to statistics that say it doesn’t even work.
California, for example, suspended more than 500,00 licenses in 2013. Only 11,000 licenses — about 2 percent—were reinstated in the same year because the fines or penalties were paid.
Ashley Gantt, diversity chair for Action Together Rochester, a Rochester, N.Y., advocacy group, put a human face to the dilemma faced by millions of Americans.
“I got my license at 16, and by 18 I had tickets totaling $1,800,” she said.
Her license was suspended because she couldn’t pay the fines—and they remained unpaid for years. “For people below the poverty line, that is an enormous amount.”
While living in Rochester, Gantt was forced to travel two to three hours by bus each way to reach her job. Even worse was what years of being unable to drive did to her relationship with her daughter. Since she couldn’t drive her to school, Gantt’s daughter lived with her father.
Once a week Gantt took a bus for hours, meeting her daughter and then walked nearly an hour to a shopping mall so they could spend time together.
When burdened by a large fine, people are faced with horrible choices, the conference was told. It often comes down to paying rent or an electrical bill and paying the fine, Gantt said.
Desperate to earn a living, people with suspended licenses keep trying—facing criminal charges if they are pulled over by the police.
“Once your license is suspended, you face terrible choices,” said Mikkilineni.
She gave one example of a man who drove on a suspended license to pick up his grandson who was too drunk to drive, fearing for his safety. The grandfather was pulled over, and ended up in jail.
“For some people, this is life or death,” said Mikkilineni.
Nancy Bilyeau is Deputy Editor of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.