Debt-Based License Suspensions: Drivers of Poverty and Incarceration


In one study, 80 percent of survey respondents indicated they lacked access to or were unqualified for employment because of a suspended license. 

Jurisdictions nationwide suspend driver’s licenses for nonpayment of fines and fees unrelated to traffic safety. The suspensions pose significant challenges for the approximately 11 million Americans affected, particularly those in areas lacking robust public transportation who risk further legal complications by driving with a suspended license to fulfill job and familial responsibilities.  In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court noted the importance of a valid driver’s license for maintaining a job, pursuing educational opportunities, and caring for families and set forth procedural protections for when a driver’s license is subject to suspension. This paper evaluates the extent of the use of debt-based suspensions, the harm it causes to individuals and communities, and its impact on law enforcement priorities. 

You can read the full text here.  

Key Findings:

  • After accounting for additional fines, fees, and increased insurance premiums, a sample of people with suspended driver’s licenses who were arrested for failure to pay or appear found their original debt range grew from $30-$800 to $200-$9,000. 
  • Failure to pay fines and fees may result in technical violations for individuals on parole or probation; the inability to make payments due to a lack of transportation, which hinders stable employment, can lead to parole and probation revocation, resulting in a return to jail. 
  • Research suggests the time spent enforcing non-traffic related suspensions by law enforcement is time lost on performing public safety duties and traffic enforcement.


  • Eliminate court-imposed fees.
  • Consider a person’s ability to pay when imposing fines.
  • End debt-based driver’s license suspension.
  • Forgive uncollectible court-ordered debt.
Christi Smith