Angie Schmitt

The Plague of License Suspensions

Black men are 10 times more likely to have drivers licenses suspended for not paying fees.

By , Streetsblog - Oct 8th, 2017 11:39 am
Parking meter fail.

Parking meter fail.

Never doubt that the American system of transportation is oppressive.

In the average American city, access to a car is practically a prerequisite to securing employment. Knowing this, state and local governments in much of the country use the threat of driver’s license suspension to impose fines and sanctions that can entrap people in a vicious cycle of indebtedness. The burden falls most heavily, of course, on people who can least afford it, an issue explored most recently by Henry Grabar at Slate.

Grabar details how license suspension has become a catch-all penalty in much of the country, applied in many cases that have nothing to do with dangerous driving:

Over the past 15 years, dozens of U.S. states have moved to suspend more licenses for court debt, fines, and fees, and unrelated offenses. In 2006, nearly 40 percent of license suspensions in the U.S. originated with offenses like unpaid traffic tickets, drug possession, or unpaid child support — violations the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, or AAMVA, categorizes as “social non-conformance.” That was a 34 percent increase from 2002, according to research by Robert J. Eger. The surge has left millions of Americans the choice between driving illegally and reorganizing their lives around alternative transportation. The first option leads to debt and trouble with law enforcement, the second to poverty and unemployment. Three in four Americans with suspended licenses choose to keep driving, according to the AAMVA.

Grabar focuses on Michigan, where something as mundane as a parking ticket can compound into a cascading series of fines, license suspensions, and punishing debt thanks to something called the “driver responsibility fee,” a surcharge the state created during a budget crunch in 2003.

Because driving has become more of a necessity than a privilege in the American transportation system, reorganizing your life “around alternative transportation” can be exceedingly difficult in many places. And the same governments that rely on license suspensions and associated fines do little to provide people with decent transit options. In Detroit, for instance, where these fines are raking in millions, the state is spending big on highways while the transit system is left to languish in a state of perpetual disarray.

Detroit is hardly unique. According to the Brookings Institution [PDF], the typical resident of a U.S. metro area can only reach 30 percent of jobs available in her region within a 90 minute transit ride.

In almost all of America, most jobs are not accessible by transit to the average resident. Chart: Brookings Institution.

In almost all of America, most jobs are not accessible by transit to the average resident. Chart: Brookings Institution.

There is a pronounced racial disparity in the application of license-based legal penalties. In Wisconsin, the Atlantic‘s Alana Semuels has reported, black men are 10 times as likely as white men to have their license suspended for failure to pay court fees or fines — which often stem from superficial transgressions unrelated to driving, like violating Milwaukee’s curfew law for minors, or “disorderly conduct.” Fully 60 percent of license suspensions in the state are for failing to pay government-issued fees, not unsafe driving, Semuels reports.

There are efforts underway in Michigan and other states to lessen the burden of these suspensions and fines, Grabar reports, but reforms often run up against conservative legislatures that have become accustomed to the revenues generated.

People shouldn’t need a car to hold a job — but in much of the country they do. It will take decades to create transportation systems where driving privileges aren’t the key to employment. In the meantime, states shouldn’t consign people to a life of joblessness and debt because they can’t pay fines.

Story by Angie Schmitt. A version of this story originally ran on Streetsblog. Angie Schmitt is a newspaper reporter-turned planner/advocate who manages the Streetsblog Network from glamorous Cleveland, Ohio. She also writes about urban issues particular to the industrial Midwest at

Categories: Streetsblog

6 thoughts on “Streetsblog: The Plague of License Suspensions”

  1. Jason Troll says:

    The City of Milwaukee needs traffic cameras and your thesis of an over representation of minortities stiffing taxpayers would probably also fit this scenario. . Chicago has cameras and the State of Illinois does not simply wave fees away. Illinois streets are safer because vehicles are then mindful of the laws. Your argument that Conservatives need African American ‘s fees for violation is laughable. Villages, cities, Counties and States collect revenue off fines and Chicago is liberal and needs revenue .

  2. Jeremy says:

    Isn’t that the point? Social non-conformism AKA breaking the law, comes with penalties. I would guess that the main reason that the penalties have escalated to the suspension of licenses is that it is the best method so far for recouping the penalty money.

  3. Casey says:

    I believe in Finland, fines correspond with income. We should model that policy so the punitive action is equal across all brackets.

  4. Aggie says:

    I agree that the suspension of a license should only result from an infraction involving that activity. You wouldn’t expect to lose your business license as a result of a traffic violation or a professional license from a non-related civil dispute, but I totally disagree with eliminating fines and suspensions due to economic ability. Truth in sentencing and clear consequences to bad actors is the only realistic way to discourage people from simply ignoring the law.

    Unfortunately, our current system seems unwilling to do the hard work regarding equality and education on the front end and instead spends all of its time and resources trying to deal with symptoms of a struggling society after the fact.

  5. Rita says:

    If a certain ethnicity doesn’t need to pay fines, fees, etc, then please across the board for all ethnicites…I don’t like paying fines and fees, but I see it as part of the responsibility of owning a vehicle.
    I live in Milwaukee and I heard a rumor that certain ethnicites don’t need to pay parking tickets…which seems like free parking for some, but not all..

  6. iced tea says:

    From “research” link in above article:

    “Eliminating social non-conformance violations would allow resources to be better focused on highway safety efforts.”

    I guess the suggestion might be that by eliminating “petty” reasons to suspend one’s license, revocations could be taken more seriously. I.E.; imagine a place where someone is caught driving a car on a revoked license, the car gets impounded, car owner gets ticket, car gets auctioned if non-payment, and driver goes to jail -this is non-palatable if people are getting revoked for exceeding a bag limit while fishing.
    There seems to be no mention in any of these pieces whether requiring proof of insurance before being able to register a vehicle affects any of these numbers, but it might be a thing. Wisconsin does not do this, in places that do -vehicle registration is suspended simultaneous to interruption of insurance.

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