Genocidal Realities

Driver’s License Suspensions—Another Pathway to Mass Incarceration

May 25, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


In speaking to the situation facing Black and Latino people in the U.S.—mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline, the criminalization and demonization of a whole generation of youth, the overt or just-below-the-surface racism prevalent in society, etc.—Carl Dix of the Revolutionary Communist Party has said what is taking place is a slow genocide that could easily become a fast genocide. The word “genocide” comes from the ancient root words “genos” (people) and “cide” (killing)—according to the UN, genocide is the deliberate imposition on a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group of “conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” This regular feature highlights aspects of this slow genocide.


Having your driver’s license suspended can pose a serious, often impossible burden on anyone, especially on those without the option of public transportation. And for people who are already straining to keep their lives together, it can be devastating—and lead not only to losing a job, but to being sent to, or back to jail.

But if you thought that driver’s license suspensions were only reserved for bad drivers—like as a result of conviction for DUI (driving under the influence) or excessive moving violations—think again. In fact, suspending driver’s licenses has become a basic tool supposedly for enforcing the collection of unpaid fines. In practice, it serves as a way to systematically punish, and jail, poor people unable to pay court fees. It is another one of the ways that the criminal (in)justice system plays the role of gatekeeper for the New Jim Crow that the majority of Black people are forced to live under today.

What have been the consequences for people trying to survive, and hold their families together, who have had their licenses suspended? The Justice Department’s recent report on Ferguson describes a woman about to have her driver’s license suspended:

I am a hardworking mother of two children and I cannot by any means take care of my family or work with my license being suspended and unable to drive. 

The New York Times described a man in Tennessee who lost a job with medical benefits and Christmas bonuses at an industrial bakery because he was thrown in jail as a result of a revoked driver’s license. This was the fourth job he’d lost for the same reason. What was keeping him from holding on to a job?—$4,509.22 in fines, court costs and reinstatement fees he has to pay to get his license back. When he was caught driving with a suspended license, new fees were added to the old ones. Being jailed as a "repeat offender," he lost another job, and then had to pay $40 a month to be on probation! Finally, he went to jail again for violating probation—because he couldn’t make those payments.

The Times reporter found that the Tennessee courts are “so clogged with ‘driving while suspended’ cases that some judges dispatch them 10 at a time.” Since the law in Tennessee allowing the suspension of licenses for unpaid debts was passed in 2012, almost 90,000 licenses have been suspended, while over the same period 170,000 additional licenses were suspended for unpaid traffic tickets. For both types of suspensions, more than 40 percent of the drivers suspended were Black, in a state with a Black population of only 16 percent. And in California, four million licenses have been suspended for failure to pay, or failure to appear in court. ("Driver’s License Suspensions Create Cycle of Debt,” New York Times, 4/14/15)

According to a 2010 Report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law—“Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry”—at least 8 of the 15 states with the largest prison populations suspended licenses based on missed debt payments: California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia. At least four states suspended licenses for failure to appear in court for an arrest warrant, issued for failing to pay debts. In fact, nationally, 40 percent of license suspensions are for unpaid traffic tickets, unpaid child support and drug offenses. ("Driver’s License Suspensions Perpetuate the Challenges of Criminal Justice Debt;” Jessica Eaglin, Counsel, Justice Program, Brennan Center for Justice, 4/30/15)

We wrote recently how warrants for failure to pay child support are used to send large numbers of Black men to jail. In addition to requiring the amount of the debt owed to increase each day while serving time in jail, all 50 states have legal mechanisms to suspend driver’s licenses for not complying with child support orders. This not only makes it much more difficult to find and keep a job with a suspended license, it also makes it more difficult for people to make their court appearances. Inevitably, many people resort to driving with a suspended license, which makes going to jail only a matter of time.

A lawyer in the public defender’s office in Nashville, Tennessee, asked by the NY Times reporter for the average charges for court costs, picked up some files on her desk and read the outstanding debts: $598, $1,100, $5,600, $14,872 and $3,800. And this doesn’t include the separate fee for having your license reinstated.

The Crime of “Criminal Justice Debt”

Often, the result of court action includes a fine as punishment. But “Criminal Justice Debt” is something different: a whole separate category of fines—charged to the defendant by the court—to pay the government for the "service" of being booked, held in jail, and prosecuted! This piling on of additional “Criminal Justice Debt” fees and fines can add up to hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of dollars. In California alone, there is more than $10 billion in uncollected, court-ordered debt. New fines are added at each step of the legal process. In addition to fees for booking, jail, prosecution, and probation, there are also fees for requesting a public defender.

It is now common for states to charge poor defendants fees for trying to exercise their "right" to have a lawyer! In other words, the right to be appointed counsel if you cannot afford one—a so-called cornerstone of this country’s legal system—in practice no longer exists for those on the bottom of society who most need it, with Black and Latino people bearing the greatest burden. This practice routinely pushes defendants to waive, or give up, their right to a lawyer, and sends them to jail. As a report from the Brennan Center for Justice summed up: “Although ‘debtors’ prison’ is illegal in all states, reincarcerating individuals for failure to pay debt is, in fact, common in some—and in all states new paths back to prison are emerging for those who owe criminal justice debt.” ("Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry,” Rebekah Diller, Alicia Bannon, Mitali Nagrecha, Report of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, October 4, 2010)

There are in reality two systems of justice in this country, rooted from the beginning in the system of slavery and the legal structure to enforce it. And it has continued through Jim Crow segregation, up to today. The consequences of these “inconveniences”—having your driver’s licenses revoked, overwhelming fees piled on, and a warrant issued, all leading to time in jail, loss of a job, and even greater difficulty finding another one—is one way that intolerable conditions of life are enforced for millions of Black people in the inner cities, and now for a massive number of Latinos as well. The connection between the "crime" of the regular workings of the criminal justice system and the mass incarceration and wanton murder by police is as clear as it is unjust, and unacceptable.


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