FFJC Statement: Coronavirus Crisis Heightens Urgency of Ending Unnecessary License Suspensions Nationwide
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has signed legislation permanently ending the widespread practice of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid court fines and fees. Virginia passed a similar but temporary measure last year, which has now been made permanent. Gov. Northam also signed a related bill to repeal the 10-day mandatory minimum sentence for driving on a suspended license. As of January 2020, close to one million suspensions were in effect in Virginia, which becomes the 7th state to end debt-based license suspensions.
“Debt-based license suspensions are bad for our economy, bad for public safety, and disastrous for the many people whose lives have been upended simply for driving-while-broke,” said Priya Sarathy Jones, national campaign director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “In light of the coronavirus crisis, state and local governments should take immediate action to end these unnecessary license suspensions.”
A bipartisan coalition supported passage of the new law, including the Legal Action Justice Center, Americans for Prosperity Virginia, and sponsors Senator Bill Stanley, Senator Jennifer McClellan, Delegate Alfonso Lopez, as well as many others from across the political spectrum.
“We stand in awe of the hard work and perseverance of the hundreds of thousands of people each year who managed to take care of their families, despite the crippling effects of the license suspension trap,” said Angela Ciolfi, Executive Director of the Legal Aid Justice Center. “We hope Virginia will continue to examine all the ways in which reliance on fines and fees to fund the courts punishes people for their poverty, devastates communities of color, and perverts our sense of justice.”
Neighboring Maryland and West Virginia also passed similar reforms this year. West Virginia’s bill was signed into law last month, while Maryland’s bill has been approved by the legislature and is expected to be signed into law.
In the previous three years, five other U.S. states — Texas, Montana, Idaho, California, Mississippi — and Washington, D.C., have also enacted major reforms to stop suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees. And legislators in 12 other states — Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin — also introduced similar bills this year.
Nationally, at least 11 million people currently have their driver’s license suspended — not because they’re dangerous drivers, but simply because they can’t afford to pay exorbitant fines and fees for minor infractions like traffic tickets.
FFJC recently released COVID-19 Policy Recommendations and are tracking fines and fees policy changes to help stem the economic and public health harms of the coronavirus crisis. One of FFJC’s 12 recommendations includes placing an immediate moratorium on driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees.