Driver Relicensing: Encouraging Individuals to Take Responsibility for Their Futures

A huge thanks to intern Jerusha Dressel for researching and writing this blog post.

Under current statutes in the State of Washington, an individual’s driver’s license can be “suspended indefinitely” if he or she fails to appear in court or pay a ticket.[1] In contrast, the suspension period is one year for a vehicular assault conviction, two years for a vehicular homicide conviction, and 30 days for a reckless driving conviction.[2] An increasing percentage of driver’s license suspensions are not for offenses where the individual is deemed to pose a threat to society. A 2013 study done by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) found that driver’s license suspensions for “social non-conformance reasons” represented 39 percent of suspended driver’s licenses, up from 29 percent in 2002: “Drivers are now commonly suspended for reasons such as bounced checks, fuel theft, truancy, vandalism and many more.”[3] Nevertheless, it was also found by the AAMVA that driver’s license suspensions for crimes unrelated to traffic safety are largely ineffective. Because the punishment is not closely tied to the original offense, the offender, the court and the police do not give it as much weight.

A driver’s license suspension can be debilitating for an individual. Grocery shopping, picking up a child from daycare and getting to work all become much more difficult tasks. Unpaid fines accumulate interest and often result in more fines. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area looked at individuals whose licenses had been suspended as a result of violations unrelated to driver’s safety. They found that many of these individuals were unable to keep their jobs due to a lack of transportation and eventually just gave up on paying back their fines, resulting in perpetual suspensions of their licenses. A cycle of poverty has been created by this system in which individuals become weighed down by fines they cannot pay. Jim Gramling, a former municipal court judge in Milwaukee, described the frequently occurring situation: “Often they’re living lives where they can’t afford to leave a job early, or at all, to go to court. They can’t hire a lawyer, can’t afford a lawyer. So they often let the cases go by default and don’t challenge tickets that maybe should be challenged.”[4]

The relicensing program at the Center for Justice exists to help individuals who have had their licenses suspended re-obtain their licenses and pay off their fines. Clients are responsible for the $150 payment that goes along with relicensing and are required to pay additional fees including Department of Licensing and Court fees. The process generally takes two to four weeks. The purpose of the driver’s relicensing program is to empower “people to take the first steps towards gaining responsibility and independence.”[5] In 2015, the Center for Justice aided in the relicensing of more than 400 persons,[6] indirectly benefiting the Spokane community by combatting poverty, increasing the efficiency of law enforcement officers and allowing clients to take ownership in their future.

The AAMVA found that individuals who have their driver’s licenses have a higher probability of a steady job. Enabling an individual to maintain steady employment is integral to fighting poverty. Additionally, decreasing the number of individuals with their license suspended frees up police resources. The amount of time and money currently being expended by law enforcement officers in citing and appearing in court for individuals whose licenses were revoked for violations unrelated to driver’s safety is enormous. The broad application of the driver’s license suspension punishment is draining funds from numerous areas of the criminal justice system. The AAMVA report concluded that, “In addition to the cost of the law enforcement officer’s time – jailers, corrections officers, judges, judicial clerks, bailiffs, prosecutors, support staff, and defense attorneys are all potentially involved in the process and could potentially benefit from the elimination of social non-conformance suspensions.”[7]

The structure of the relicensing program at the Center for Justice encourages individuals to take responsibility for their future. The program seeks to help clients gain their independence, but requires participants to take an active role in the process. In addition to the fee due to the center, the client is responsible for filling out paperwork related to their relicensing. Each client is required to sign a conduct pledge agreeing to treat employees at the Center for Justice with “respect, dignity, and fairness” and they are held accountable to this pledge throughout their relicensing process. In addition, as part of this pledge, clients agree to bring in required documents in a prompt manner. If a client fails to hold up his or her end of the bargain, he or she may be removed from the program. By placing a substantial amount of responsibility on the individual, the Center hopes that the individual will feel more ownership and pride in the process.

 

[1] “Why does the Center for Justice have this program?” Center for Justice, accessed February 26, 2016, http://cforjustice.org/legal-services/getting-my-license-back/.
[2] “Reckless driving,” Washington State Department of Licensing, accessed February 26, 2016, http://www.dol.wa.gov/driverslicense/suspendrecklessdriving.html. “Vehicular assault,” Washington State Department of Licensing, accessed February 26, 2016, http://www.dol.wa.gov/driverslicense/suspendvassault.html.
“Vehicular homicide,” Washington State Department of Licensing, accessed February 26, 2016, http://www.dol.wa.gov/driverslicense/suspendvhomicide.html.
[3] “Best Practices Guide to Reducing Suspended Drivers,” American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, February 2013, PDF, accessed February 26, 2016.
[4] Joseph Shapiro, “Can’t Pay Your Fines? Your License Could Be Taken,” NPR, December 29, 2014,  http://www.npr.org/2014/12/29/372691960/cant-pay-your-fines-your-license-could-be-taken.
[5] CFJ Driver’s Relicensing Program Conduct Pledge.
[6] “CFJ Top 15 of 2015,” Center for Justice, accessed February 26, 2016, http://cforjustice.org/top-15-of-2015/.
[7] “Best Practices Guide to Reducing Suspended Drivers,” American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.

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