Five years ago Ken Theisen spent most of his time helping his clients get their driver’s license back. Their licenses had been suspended because they were too poor to pay a traffic ticket, which usually exceeded $500. As an advocate at Bay Area Legal Aid, he worked with people whose lives were devastated as a result of the suspension: “After they had their license suspended, so many of my clients lost their job or had difficulty getting work due to the suspension. They were caught in a poverty trap.” But in 2015, that changed: the San Francisco Court ended the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for people who could not afford to pay their traffic tickets.
Court leaders were responding to community outcry that the penalty was too extreme. In 2015, The Department of Justice authored a report on the Police Department in Ferguson, Missouri, revealing patterns of racially discriminatory ticketing and the devastating impact of the resulting debt. A report authored by California community advocates outlined similar patterns in California, where over 4 million Californians had their driver’s license suspended for failure to pay or appear in court. The report stated: “These suspensions make it harder for people to get and keep jobs, further impeding their ability to pay their debt. Ultimately, they keep people in long cycles of poverty that are difficult, if not impossible to overcome.”
Since San Francisco stopped the use of license suspensions, courts and jurisdictions from across the country reached out. They were considering similar reforms, and asked: without the use of driver’s license suspensions as a consequence for failure to pay, did people still continue to pay?
Our analysis finds that since the San Francisco Superior Court stopped using driver’s license suspensions to compel payment, there has been no negative impact on revenue collection. In fact, collections per filing in San Francisco have increased slightly, and on time collections across the state went up in the year after eliminating the penalty. Research and interviews with court and other leaders reveals that commonsense collection practices such as frequent reminder notices, monthly billing statements, accessible payment plans, and discounts based on ability to pay are more effective than extreme penalties like suspensions.
These suspensions drive low-income people into poverty and disproportionately and overwhelmingly impact people of color. More effective, commonsense collection practices exist to collect payment. So what are other places waiting for? We hope this paper is useful for state and local officials across the country who are exploring ending this onerous penalty.
Yours in Financial Justice,
Anne & Christa