Rethinking the approach to license suspensions as behavior incentives
Thinking Through Consequences
James Fackler, Director of the Office of Program Support and Development, Customer Services Administration, Michigan Department of State
Historically in Michigan, we’ve long advocated against any suspension program that’s not driving related. The only suspensions we have supported over the years that aren’t driving related are drug crimes and delinquent child support. Outside of those two areas, we fought things like truancy or non-payment issues. Our philosophy is that it should be about how an individual operates a vehicle, their physical or mental condition, not their ability to pay debts like library fines or parking tickets. That philosophy has come from our elected officials, and thankfully, the legislature has agreed.
Take an example of a kid who skipped school, and then gets a license suspension. Now you’re putting a block in front of that kid to not only getting licensed but also to getting driver’s education. Then when the kid is 18, driver’s education is no longer a requirement so they can just take the road test to get a license. Two things our state really pushes is proper licensure and proper training, and it would work against both of those things to suspend some kid’s license to make them go to school. Instead, maybe we should be focusing on why they aren’t going to school. That’s just one example where we look at our goals, and try to create situations that reinforce those goals. The idea of punishment related to driving counteracts the other positive things we do with kids, such as promoting driver’s education.
In addition to counteracting some of our goals for young people, license suspension also is probably not as strong of an incentive to kids today as it seemed when a lot of these rules were made. When you look at the big picture, kids are delaying licensure. This is partly because of the cost of driver’s education and partly because of the culture with phones and social media—they connect with their friends that way versus getting in a car and driving somewhere. I’d love to see someone propose a bill that says a kid can’t use a cell phone if they’re truant in school—let’s see how that goes over! That might be a much better deterrent than licensure. I know my kid would be far more concerned about losing access to the phone than the driver’s license.
Regardless, we know driving is important—robot cars aren’t going to be here tomorrow—and it’s even more important for families that may have difficulty paying fines to relieve suspensions. For people who can afford the fees, it’s not as much of an issue, but for lower income families, they can get locked into a debt cycle. One option we have for that is alternatives such as volunteer programs. However, the way we should look at it is we should try to be conscious about the cost of driver’s education for young drivers or the total cost of a young or new driver or even costs for families in general. These costs aren’t going down, and if we don’t add to it, that will be helpful for everyone. Of course we want to provide safety to the public, but we also don’t want to start a process where more people start driving without insurance or driving without a license. ￼
Bill Raftery, Ph.D., Analyst, National Center for State Courts
In 2014 and 2015, the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri spurred a reaction to license suspensions being tied to non-highway safety offenses. For many years, license suspension was used as a mechanism in order to collect fees and fines. This was an issue that received attention during Ferguson because the city heavily relied on fees for its budget. For example, according to NPR, in 2013 the city collected “$2.6 million in court fines and fees, mainly on traffic violations and other low-level municipal offenses,” making up 21 percent of the city’s budget.
Due in large part to this attention, many state courts began to analyze their practices. For example, in Texas the chief justice questioned why many offenses were immediately going to license suspension and why the judiciary didn’t have or wouldn’t use more flexibility when making judgments. Virginia passed legislation to try to end the practice. And Arizona started using more flexibility in its judgments to give offenders the opportunity to get on a payment plan and as long as they paid something, they wouldn’t receive a license suspension.
Another aspect of the issue that courts have dealt with is lawsuits. While these lawsuits have mostly been in federal court, they still bring attention to license suspension—especially automatic license suspension where a court has no option but to suspend someone’s license—not only as potentially unfair or burdensome practices but also as civil rights violations.
From the perspective of state courts, this is an important issue because where the policy meets the person is right there in that courtroom. State legislatures meet for limited times—in some states they only meet every other year—the governor is just one person, and where a citizen actually interacts with the government is in the court system. The judge is the key point of contact for that interaction and in many instances the options they have available to them are defined at a very, very local level; they can be state-by-state or even county-by-county. So whether a judge has any flexibility in dealing with license suspension can differ greatly depending on where you are.
However, the overall awareness of this issue has increased and the ramifications of the practice are becoming more and more obvious. In many places, courts are addressing the issue for the first time. Prior to several years ago, this was just what you did. When Ferguson put the numbers into focus, it was shocking to realize how many thousands of people were on license suspension rolls and it had nothing to do with their motor vehicle.
Looking ahead, it seems unlikely that any states will add new legislation to increase the number of offenses on the suspension list. At worst, states have entered into steady state, however, more courts are using existing discretion to do things like offer payment plans or alternate reinstatement paths. Other ramifications this issue will have for courts are yet to be seen. It could add to a court’s docket if more hearings are needed to provide these alternate paths. How prosecutors decide to react will also affect this. For example, in some California counties, they’ve cleared out dockets for certain debts, which results in fewer suspensions because there are no active fines or fees against those people. But in some states, prosecutors may want to fight for that money.