New laws: Driver's license suspension

State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, sponsored a bill to end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses of those unable to quickly pay traffic fines. The change is effective through June 2020.

Everybody deserves a second chance. Now the Virginia General Assembly has a second chance to ensure that all Virginians get one.

Gov. Ralph Northam is asking the legislature to consider a budget amendment during the veto session that convenes this week that would end the counterproductive practice of suspending the drivers licenses for those unable to quickly pay traffic fines.

Bipartisan legislation by state Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin County) that would have ended the practice failed to make it through the regular session. Now lawmakers get a do-over. This time they should not pass up the chance to get rid of this outdated law.

The practice of suspending the license of those who can’t immediately come up with several hundred dollars runs counter to both justice and common sense.

For Virginians living paycheck to paycheck while trying to balance work and family, a driver’s license is a practical necessity. If you can’t get your kids to school or yourself to work, how are you going to be able to earn the money to pay the fine?

If this sounds like a small problem, consider the numbers. Data from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles shows that nearly one million Virginia drivers had their licenses suspended as of late 2016 for failure to pay fines and fees.

That’s a lot of Virginians forced to choose between driving illegally and getting to work.

In many parts of the commonwealth, public transportation simply isn’t a reliable alternative. Even in major metro areas such as Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Newport News, only 15 percent of jobs were reasonably accessible by public transportation, a Brookings Institution study found. In more rural areas of the state, the situation is even worse.

Of course, when you break the law and a court fines you, the fine should eventually be paid. But revoking a person’s ability to drive directly harms their capacity to earn the money they need to pay the fines in the first place. Not being able to pay a small fine shouldn’t force someone to break the law just to perform the routine duties of everyday life, thus inviting further disrespect for the law and risking additional fines and punishment.

The primary goal of our criminal justice system should be to keep our communities safe. The practice of suspending driver’s licenses does not help achieve that goal. On the contrary, it criminalizes poverty and disproportionately harms minorities and low-income communities.

And there is no hard evidence that the suspension policy works for its intended purpose — a way to collect outstanding debt. Quite the opposite, in fact. A review by the General Assembly found that the driver’s license suspension policy “may in fact adversely affect the ability to collect unpaid fines and costs.”

This problem isn’t unique to Virginia. The Washington Post recently reported that more than 7 million people all across the country may have had their driver’s licenses suspended for failure to promptly pay traffic fines and fees. And some states have taken steps to end the practice.

Georgia enacted a series of reforms in 2015 that included a ban on suspensions for unpaid fines. Mississippi recently ended the suspension of licenses for failure to pay fees — and reinstated more than 100,000 licenses that had been previously suspended.

Virginia would be wise to join them.

April is Second Chance Month, a way for states and localities to acknowledge the importance of giving people who made a mistake a new start and a path toward redemption.

The governor and legislature now have a second chance to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of Virginians, while redeeming their own failure to enact state Sen. Stanley’s bill. They should seize it.

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