How Driver's License Suspensions Unfairly Target The Poor

Jan 5, 2015
Originally published on February 6, 2015 3:07 pm

This is the second of two stories. Read the first story here.

If you get caught drinking and driving in Wisconsin, and it's your first offense, you lose your license for nine months. For a hit-and-run, the punishment is suspension for one year.

But if you don't pay a ticket for a minor driving offense, such as driving with a broken tail light, you can lose your license for two years.

"It's an incredible policy," says John Pawasarat of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. It's "a policy of punishing people who can't pay their fines."

The practice — repeated in states across the country — is mostly affecting the poor and creating a spiral of bad consequences.

NPR's recent "Guilty and Charged" investigation found that rising court fines and fees — reaching hundreds or even thousands of dollars per person — often hurt poor people the most.

Pawasarat, who runs the university's Employment and Training Institute and studies Milwaukee's poor neighborhoods, says one of the biggest barriers to getting a job is not having a driver's license.

"Two out of three African-American men in this neighborhood, of working age, don't have a driver's license," he says while walking down Martin Luther King Avenue in Milwaukee. "And are consequently unable to access the jobs that are beyond the bus lines."

But among the typical barriers to employment — such as having a prison record, or a poor education — a suspended license is the easiest to solve, says Pawasarat.

McArthur Edwards, who lives nearby, knows from personal experience.

"It hinders you because most jobs are not in the inner city nowadays. And they get pushed far back, and the buses don't go out there. So the inner-city jobs that we have are not able to provide for our families that we have and to provide for ourselves," he says.

In 2013, Edwards was stopped by police and ticketed for driving with a broken light over his back license plate. State department of transportation records show that when he didn't pay the $64 fine, his driver's license was suspended for two years.

He kept driving and got more tickets. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, at least 75 percent of Americans who get their licenses suspended continue driving.

Edwards, 29, has come to the Center for Driver's License Recovery and Employability, where lawyers and case workers help people with low income get suspensions lifted.

His reason for wanting his license is simple: He wants a better job.

From time to time, Edwards is hired to work in warehouses around the city. But those are temporary jobs, often at around minimum wage.

That makes it difficult for him to pay both the landlord and the electric bill.

Edwards, who lived in foster care or state homes from the time he was 2, wants to be a good father to his four children, who range in age from 4 to 11 years.

"I want my kids to look up to me. I want my kids to be like, 'Me and my father did that,' or, 'I need these,' or 'I want these,' or, 'The school said I needed this,' " he says. "And I can't afford to buy it. Or I can't provide for my children. I don't want that to be that way."

Recently, Edwards responded to ads for long-distance truck drivers. Two companies promised to train him, but not until he has a valid driver's license.

It's a potential job that he speaks of wistfully. "I like traveling. And trucking is a good way to travel — just see the sights of America, man. It's a beautiful country," he says. "I just want to see everything. I love the road."

To lift his suspension, staff at the center helped Edwards reset the original unpaid ticket.

For six other tickets — most of them for driving while suspended — he paid $600 on the $1,800 he owed. He then cleared the rest by doing community service.

The most common way that people lose their driver's license in Wisconsin is not for drunken driving or other unsafe driving. It's for failure to pay the fine on a ticket for a nonmoving traffic offense. Those make up 56 percent of all license suspensions in the state, according to statistics from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

Nationwide, the numbers are similar: About 40 percent of suspensions are for unpaid traffic tickets, and for things like not paying child support, or getting caught with drugs — things that have nothing to do with unsafe driving, according to the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.

People with money pay off their tickets and are done with the courts. When people don't pay, a minor ticket can set off a chain of problems.

Like for Angel Hinton, who also came to the center for help.

Hinton had a small janitorial business, but money was tight. So she challenged a parking ticket she received outside the suburban office building she cleaned on Sunday mornings.

But the unpaid ticket meant she couldn't renew her car registration. She then got more tickets for expired tags. She missed a court date. She says she wasn't notified. That triggered an arrest warrant. And one day, she was stopped by police, pulled out of her car and handcuffed in front of her young daughter.

Without a license, she could no longer drive to the places she cleaned.

"This basically ruined my life," she says. "I mean, I was to the point that I'm building my business. I'm growing. And now I'm back to depending on public assistance."

When Jim Gramling was a judge on Milwaukee's Municipal Court, he saw the problems that license suspensions created for poor people. He worked with lawyers, court officials and community activists to help start the Center for Driver's License Recovery and Employability. The organization is a public-private partnership between Wisconsin Community Services, a nonprofit community agency; Legal Action of Wisconsin, which provides legal services to the poor; Milwaukee Area Technical College; and the city's Municipal Court.

After retiring from the bench, Gramling immediately started working at the center as a volunteer lawyer.

"What we see constantly here at the center are drivers who have accumulated a series of tickets that are directly related to their lack of income," he says.

Since the program started in 2007, it has worked with about 10,000 clients, helping nearly 3,000 get their license.

"People should pay their tickets. No doubt about it," says Gramling. "They should be held accountable for what they've done that violated the traffic laws. But at some point, a balance has to be introduced into this. And the balance is, if people don't pay because they're low income and can't budget that expense, what's an appropriate penalty?"

Gramling says most judges never ask people if they have the money to pay traffic tickets. So he argues for alternative penalties — for example, to let people pay in small monthly amounts, or arrange for community service instead.

The retired judge is also lobbying state lawmakers to end the two-year suspension on failure to pay a ticket.

Municipal Court officials declined to speak about the policy of giving two-year suspensions, but the threat of losing a license does address the issue of fairness, pushing people who can afford to pay to do so.

Still, a new analysis of city records by the nonprofit Justice Initiatives Institute says there's no evidence that the long suspensions stop people from driving and getting more tickets. Sometimes, people then get arrested and put in jail — which is expensive for the city. Mostly, the report says, the two-year suspensions just put poor people more in debt.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Losing your driver's license is a serious penalty, but often drivers lose it for things that have nothing to do with unsafe driving, like the failure to pay court fines. That is a penalty that hurts poor people the most and can even keep them stuck in poverty. NPR's Joseph Shapiro explains.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Here are the penalties for serious driving offenses in Wisconsin - if you get caught drunk driving, it's your first offense, you lose your license for nine months. For hit-and-run driving -

JOHN PAWASARAT: Well, you get one-year revocation for that.

SHAPIRO: That's researcher John Pawasarat.

PAWASARAT: Even though they've left an accident causing bodily harm, they get a revocation for one year.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: But, get this - if you don't pay the ticket for a minor driving offense, you lose your license for two years. Like, if you get stopped for driving with a broken tail light, but then you don't pay.

PAWASARAT: It's well beyond any other penalty.

SHAPIRO: So hit-and-run driver - 12 months, broken tail light, don't pay the ticket - 24 months. Does this make sense?

PAWASARAT: It's an incredible policy, a policy of punishing people who can't pay their fines.

SHAPIRO: It's a policy we found repeated in states across the country. People who don't pay their court fines, for nonviolent offenses - mostly for driving violations - get their driver's license suspended. It's a twist on an NPR investigation that we called "Guilty And Charged." That showed the rise of court fines and fees and how the costs - that can reach hundreds or even thousands of dollars per person - most hurt poor people, like the people who live in this neighborhood.

PAWASARAT: We're pretty much in the heart of Milwaukee's poorest neighborhoods.

SHAPIRO: Pawasarat runs the Employment and Training Institute at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. He studies these neighborhoods, block by block, to understand the barriers to getting a job, like having your driver's license suspended and how losing it can set off a spiral of bad consequences for the poorest people.

PAWASARAT: Two out of three African-American men in this neighborhood of working age don't have a driver's license and are consequently unable to access the jobs that are beyond the bus line.

MCARTHUR EDWARDS: If you have a suspended license, man, it hinders you because most jobs are not in the inner city nowadays. So the inner-city jobs that we have are not able to provide for our families.

SHAPIRO: That's McArthur Edwards. He was stopped by police and ticketed for driving with a broken light over his back license plate. When he didn't pay the $64 fine, his driver's license was suspended for two years. He kept driving and got more tickets. He's 29 now. From time to time, he gets hired to work in warehouses around the city, but those are temporary jobs, often at around minimum wage. This month he doesn't have enough money to pay both the landlord and the light bill. He wants to be a good father to his four children.

EDWARDS: And I want my kids to look up to me. I want my kids to be like, man, my father did that, you know, or I need these or I want these or the school said I needed this and I can't afford to buy it or I can't provide for my children, you know? I don't want that to be that way.

SHAPIRO: Recently, he responded to ads for long-distance truck drivers. Two companies promised to train him, but not until he's got a valid driver's license. So he came to the Center for Driver's License Recovery and Employability, where lawyers and caseworkers helped him get his license. They arranged for him to pay off $600 on the $1,800 he owed then cleared the rest with community service at the food pantry.

ANGELA CATANIA: All right, so you had your road test last week, correct?

SHAPIRO: Case manager Angela Catania helps him with the last step - to set up the road test he needs to pass.

CATANIA: OK, and how did that go?

EDWARDS: It went fine from my point of view.

CATANIA: OK.

EDWARDS: But I failed it.

CATANIA: Do you have another one rescheduled?

EDWARDS: Yes.

CATANIA: OK.

SHAPIRO: Statistics from Wisconsin's Department of Transportation show that the most common reason people lose their license is because they don't pay the fine on a ticket for a non-moving traffic offense. Those make up 56 percent of all suspensions in Wisconsin. Nationwide, one study found similar numbers - about 40 percent of suspensions are for unpaid traffic tickets and for things like not paying child support or getting caught with drugs - things that have nothing to do with unsafe driving. People with money pay off their tickets and are done with the courts. When people don't pay, a minor ticket can set off a chain of problems, like for Angel Hinton, who also came to the center for help.

ANGEL HINTON: I always parked in that same place for two years. They never ticketed my car.

SHAPIRO: Hinton had a small janitorial business. Money was tight so she challenged the parking ticket she got outside of a suburban office building she cleaned on Sunday mornings. But the unpaid ticket meant she couldn't renew her car registration. She then got more tickets for expired tags. She missed a court date. She says she wasn't notified. That triggered an arrest warrant. And one day, she got stopped by police, pulled out of her car and handcuffed in front of her young daughter. Without a license, she could no longer drive to the places she cleaned.

HINTON: This basically ruined my life. I mean, I was to the point that I'm building my business, I'm growing, and now I'm back to depending on public assistance.

JIM GRAMLING: People should pay their tickets, no doubt about it. They should be held accountable for what they've done that violated the traffic laws.

SHAPIRO: Jim Gramling is a former municipal court judge. He helped start the Center for Driver's License Recovery - retired on a Friday, started working as a volunteer lawyer on Monday.

GRAMLING: But, at some point, a balance has to be introduced into this. And the balance is if people don't pay because they're low-income and can't budget that expense, what's an appropriate penalty?

SHAPIRO: He says most judges never ask people if they have the money to pay traffic tickets. So he argues for alternate penalties, to let people pay in small monthly amounts or arrange for community service instead. And the retired judge lobbies state lawmakers to end the two-year suspension on failure to pay a ticket, a penalty longer than the suspension for drunk driving or hit-and-run driving.

GRAMLING: Don't let those suspensions sit on low-income people and prevent them from getting the license they need to get to and from work, get a job or just live like everybody else.

SHAPIRO: Municipal court officials declined to speak about the policy of two-year suspensions, but the threat of losing a license does push people who can pay to pay. Still, a new analysis of city records by the nonprofit Justice Initiatives Institute, says there's no evidence that the long suspensions stop people from driving and getting more tickets. Mostly, the report says, the two-year suspensions just put poor people more in debt. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.