Viewpoint: Judicial Council’s Wrong-Headed Approach to Driver’s License Suspensions

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Recorder – By Brandon Greene and Stephen Bingham

The article “No Cuts for Courts Planned in California’s $179B Budget” includes comments of the Office of the Governor that driver’s license suspensions are a punitive revenue collection tool that is ineffective. The governor’s proposed budget states in part: “there does not appear to be a strong connection between suspending someone’s driver’s license and collecting their fine or penalty. Often, the primary consequence of a driver’s license suspension is the inability to legally drive to work or take one’s children to school. Therefore, the budget proposes to eliminate the statutory provisions related to suspending driver’s licenses for failure to pay fines and penalties.”

We wholeheartedly agree. The governor’s proposal aligns with the conclusions of the Back on the Road California Coalition (BOTRC), a statewide group comprised of advocates and organizations advocating for alternatives to license suspensions as a debt collection tool because those suspensions are counter-productive and disproportionately impact low-income communities of color. Unfortunately, the governor’s proposal was met with resistance from the Judicial Council. For the reasons described below, we believe that this resistance is unwarranted.

Recent coalition reports highlight the racialized impact of these policies. Our 2015 report, “Not Just a Ferguson Problem: How California Courts Are Driving Inequality,” demonstrated that more than four million Californians have had their driver’s license suspended for failures to appear in traffic court (FTAs) or failures to pay traffic tickets (FTPs), and that the Department of Motor Vehicles reported over 600,000 license suspensions for these procedural violations. Our 2016 report, “Stopped, Fined, Arrested: Racial Bias in Policing and Traffic Courts in California,” found that the driver’s license suspension rates for FTAs or FTPs were directly correlated with poverty indicators and with race. As a result, Black and Latino drivers are more likely than white drivers to be stopped by the police, to be fined or arrested for traffic offenses, and to suffer unfair fines or incarceration. These reports and findings matched the results of studies from around the country.

Together, these reports support a growing consensus that Black and Latino drivers have disproportionately greater contact with law enforcement, leading to increased contact with the criminal justice system and correspondingly to greater amounts of court-ordered debt. Disproportionate poverty in Black and Latino communities means that Black and Latino drivers are more likely to be unable to pay court-ordered debt, and thus, to experience driver’s license suspensions and other punitive collections tactics. In sum, there is a growing consensus that driver’s license suspensions are not only an economic justice issue but also a racial justice issue.

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