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Bi-partisan legislation introduced to end the automatic suspension of driver’s licenses for drug offenses

by Peter Wagner, April 7, 2017

A misguided relic from the War on Drugs suspends the driver’s licenses of 190,000 people every year for drug offenses that do not involve driving. This law makes it hard for people with drug convictions to get back on their feet. After helping Massachusetts end this practice in 2016, we released a report urging the remaining 12 states and the District of Columbia to follow suit.

This week, bi-partisan legislation was introduced that would repeal the problem’s origin: a federal incentive that encouraged states to pass this regressive legislation in the first place.

Yesterday, the Drug Policy Alliance sent a letter to Congress from more than 30 criminal justice reform, addiction recovery, faith, and civil rights organizations supporting the full repeal of the underlying federal law. The Prison Policy Initiative joined the letter and reprints the press release here:

U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke Leads Bipartisan Bill that Repeals Federal Transportation Law Requiring States to Suspend Driver’s Licenses for Drug Offenses

Nearly 200,000 Driver’s Licenses Are Suspended Annually for Drug Offenses Unrelated to Driving Because of Federal Mandate

More than 30 Addiction Recovery, Criminal Justice, Civil Rights and Faith Organizations Send Letter to Congress Urging Repeal of Federal Suspension Law

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke (D-TX-16) has introduced bipartisan legislation with Representatives Justin Amash (R-MI-3), Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY-8), Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI-5), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY-10), and Mia Love (R-UT-4) that would repeal a 26-year-old federal law that mandates states to automatically suspend driver’s licenses for anyone convicted of a drug offense or risk losing federal highway aid money.

Since this mandate was adopted in 1991, 38 states have opted-out demonstrating that the policy is counterproductive. The remaining twelve states – including Texas, New York, Michigan and Florida – still comply with the federal mandate. A recent report by the Prison Policy Initiative found that nearly 200,000 driver’s licenses are still suspended in these states each year for drug offenses unrelated to driving. The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators has also pointed out that roads are more dangerous when law enforcement time and resources are wasted enforcing license suspensions unrelated to dangerous driving. More than 30 criminal justice reform, addiction recovery, faith and civil rights organizations have signed a letter to Congress supporting full repeal of this federal mandate.

“Limiting an individual’s ability to get around because of a drug law violation is excessively punitive and stifles efforts to find employment, take care of family responsibilities, and access health care and support networks,” said Queen Adesuyi, policy associate of national affairs with the Drug Policy Alliance. “It was 1991 when Congress passed a law requiring states to automatically suspend driver’s licenses for a drug offense, and the catch phrase then was ‘smoke a joint, lose your license.’ In the years since, the harsh impact on people trying to get back on their feet is shining a light on just how counterproductive the war on drugs has been and continues to be.”

Advocates point out that the ability to legally drive is essential to maintaining employment, housing and sobriety, which are also often conditions placed upon individuals as a condition of court-ordered supervision post-conviction and release. The U.S. Census Bureau found that 86% of people surveyed use a vehicle to get to work and employers often require proof of a valid driver’s license to even be considered for certain jobs. Many communities and most rural areas do not have access to public transportation, including many of the states that still follow the federal mandate. In fact, almost half of the 25 least accessible metropolitan areas are within the 12 states that are still automatically suspending licenses for drug convictions. This makes the ability to legally drive essential to maintaining employment and meeting responsibilities.

Low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately hurt by this antiquated federal mandate. All of the states that suspend driver’s licenses after a drug conviction have reinstatement fees, as high as $275, on top of court fines and fees. Moreover, 44% of the United States’ Black population lives in one of the 12 remaining jurisdictions that suspends driver’s licenses.

“Despite using drugs at similar rates to whites, Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately arrested and convicted for drug offenses, which makes them more likely to be impacted by driver suspension laws,” said Adesuyi. “Driver license suspension laws hit the most marginalized people the hardest without any actual benefit to public safety. A drug conviction should not bar you from being able to pick up your kids from school or go to work. Repeal is long overdue.”

Contact:

Tommy McDonald 510-338-8827
Queen Adesuyi 202-810-1481

You can also see Representative Beto O’Rourke explain his proposed legislation in this video:

The Prison Policy Initiative’s award-winning campaign to abolish unnecessary license suspensions is just one of the ways we shed light on the hidden consequences of mass incarceration.

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