A suite of criminal justice reform bills is moving through the Michigan state legislature, and are expected to be signed into law soon by Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D). Included in the package is a proposal to greatly restrict driver’s license suspensions. Advocates nationwide argue that unjustified suspensions target low-income, Black and Brown people—impacting their ability to make a living and threatening their criminalization, without protecting public safety.
Michigan’s House Bills 5846 and 5852—passed by both chambers by December 17—would limit the use of driver’s license suspensions for violations not related to dangerous driving. Currently, drivers can have their licenses suspended for a range of other reasons, including if they fail to pay fines and fees or appear in court for civil or criminal cases.
Under the reforms, a driver’s license could only be suspended in cases related to drunk driving, reckless driving, or causing death or injury to another. Having unpaid traffic tickets, in one example of a situation that penalizes poverty, would not risk getting your license suspended.
Such cases “are not suspensions for unsafe driving, full stop,” Katie Adamides of the Fines and Fees Justice Center told Filter. Although not involved in the Michigan reform, Adamides leads a similar initiative in New York state. “These are suspensions for not paying and not appearing on a traffic ticket. Reforms do not change suspensions related to unsafe driving.”
Driving without a valid license is the third most common reason for people going to jail in Michigan.
Michigan suspends hundreds of thousands of driver’s licenses for nonpayment of fines and fees and missed court appearances each year, including over 365,000 in 2019 alone. Drivers are required to pay a fee to reinstate their license, and the current law puts drivers in a dangerous trap.
Because people whose licenses get suspended and who lack other options or resources often still need to drive—whether it’s to hold onto their job, buy food, see the doctor or take their children to school.
The issue has become even more critical during the pandemic. “People now more than ever need to drive for their basic needs,” Adamides said. “That includes for work, for childcare, for health care, to maintain social distancing, to drive-through coronavirus testing.”
And if you get pulled over by police while your license is suspended, you will accrue more fines and fees, or worse: Driving without a valid license is the third most common reason for people going to jail in Michigan.
The application of these laws, as with so many others, is racist. Pew data show that in Michigan, 12 percent of incarcerated Black men and 15 percent of incarcerated Black women had driving without a valid license as their most serious charge for jail admission, compared to 6 percent of white men and women.
Similarly, research in New Jersey shows that driver’s license suspensions unfairly target low-income, Black and Hispanic areas compared to wealthier and whiter areas. The same pattern holds in New York, whose legislature has passed reforms in this area, only for Governor Cuomo not to sign the leglislation.
Other states have successfully taken steps similar to those that may become law in Michigan. Nine states have stopped suspending driver’s licenses for nonpayment of fines and fees, and seven have stopped doing so for failure to appear in court.
Virginia passed a law in April 2020 that not only prevents license suspensions for nonpayment of fines and fees, but went further by making it retroactive, reinstating applicable suspended licenses with no fees required. This affected over 400,000 people in the state.
In June, Oregon lawmakers also passed a bill to end driver’s license suspensions for nonpayment of fines and fees. More than 25 percent of such suspensions in the state are applied to Black and Indigneous residents, who comprise less than 4 percent of the state’s population.
Local governments insufficiently motivated by the prospect of doing the right thing can note that there are also financial benefits. “In jurisdictions that have done this, they’ve increased collections,” Adamides said. “That makes sense–if you let people drive to work and earn money they can pay their fines and fees—especially if you allow a payment plan.” California allows drivers with outstanding debts to request a payment plan instead of license suspension, and Adamides is advocating for New York to adopt this policy.