Illinois is set to become the next state to end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses over unpaid traffic violations, thanks to a landmark criminal justice reform bill signed by Governor J. B. Pritzker on February 22, after months of advocacy from the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus. In addition to ending driver’s license suspensions, the bill also contains provisions to end cash bail and prison gerrymandering, and promote police accountability.
Advocates say that the driver’s license provision, among others, is a significant step towards racial and economic justice, since the effects of license suspensions fall most heavily on people of color and people living in poverty.
“Reinstating driver’s licenses for tens of thousands of people is a huge win. We just can’t even measure the day-to-day impact this is going to have on so many low-income people,” State Representative Carol Ammons (D-Urbana), one of the bill’s main backers in the legislature, told Filter.
Mari Castaldi, director of policy and advocacy for the Chicago Jobs Council, which advocated for the legislation, highlighted the bill’s ability to promote access to jobs. “Many people were being locked out of economic opportunities because of a suspended license, which had nothing to do with a threat to public safety, and had everything to do with the fact that they were in poverty in the first place,” she said.
The bill “removes the Catch-22 where if people can’t drive, they can’t work, and if they can’t work, they can’t ever pay the debt,” Ammons told Filter.
Previously, people with five or more unpaid tickets issued by speed cameras could have their licenses suspended until payment. Failure to pay other traffic tickets could lead to licenses being placed on “hold,” meaning that they were ineligible for renewal until the tickets were paid.
Under the new law, both forms of suspension are eliminated, and the Illinois Secretary of State is directed to lift all suspensions no later than July 1. The law will give relief to more than 11,000 Illinoisans whose licenses are currently suspended, as well as over 300,000 whose licenses are on “hold.”
“I think it says a lot … that we went from just a few years ago having three states, to now we’re at 14 states.”
The change comes on top of a reform passed in January of last year, dubbed the “License to Work Act,” which banned the practice of suspending licenses for unpaid parking tickets and other non-moving violations. Castaldi said that the new law is an “extension” of the License to Work Act, to “include the other kinds of fines and fees related suspensions that we weren’t able to pass that first time around.”
The law will also have the effect of reducing police encounters among people who use drugs. Criminal justice advocate Katie Schaffer told Filter last month that driver’s license suspensions “put people at risk of further contact with the police system,” adding that, “Once you’ve been pulled over and they’ve found a suspended license, you’re at risk of having your car searched.”
In addition to building on the 2020 License to Work Act, the new law was also a product of the momentum generated by the protests for racial justice that swept the country in summer of 2020, Castaldi said. During Fall 2020, in response to the protests, the Illinois Black Legislative Caucus held dozens of hearings on four major bills to promote racial equity in criminal justice, in economic opportunity, in education and in health care. The provision to end suspensions was included as part of the criminal justice bill.
“Eliminating suspensions will clear a lot of barriers to employment that are disproportionately experienced by Black Illinoians, who are disproportionate recipients of driver’s license suspensions, because they are disproportionately ticketed in both parking and traffic violations,” Castaldi said.
Passing a law to end suspensions as part of a larger legislative package was “a little bit unique and in some ways unexpected,” said Priya Sarathy Jones, the national policy and campaigns director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center, which works to end driver’s license suspensions nationwide. “Folks have been working in this state for years trying to make this happen, so I think that the way it did happen this year was sort of quick and, as far as these things go, easy.”
Sarathy Jones said that the new law in Illinois is a continuation of the significant progress made in 2020 towards ending suspensions nationwide, noting that seven states passed legislation last year curtailing the practice. “I think it says a lot about the direction that we went from just a few years ago having three states, to now we’re at 14 states” that have ended suspensions, Sarathy Jones told Filter, noting that 11 additional states have pending bills on ending suspensions.
“More and more states are trying to deal with [suspensions], and we in just a few years could see the end of this if it continues to go this way.”