A Simple But Revolutionary Way to Ease the Burden of Coronavirus

Suspending driver’s licenses over traffic debt was wrong before the pandemic. It’s even worse now.

Five years ago, Michael Yuen set in motion a simple but revolutionary reform that has transformed the lives of millions of low-income Californians while costing the state little in return. Yuen, CEO of the San Francisco Superior Court, persuaded the court to become the first in the nation to stop suspending driver’s licenses when people could not afford to pay traffic citations.

The practice is known to have a spiral effect that often hurts low-income and marginalized communities the most. What’s more, when people lose their jobs because they can’t get to them, they are not better positioned to pay off their debts. In fact, when San Francisco implemented this change, it didn’t collect less in citation revenue. It ended up collecting more per citation. If that’s not enough of a reason for states and localities to implement this policy change, there’s another: the Covid-19 pandemic.

On the surface, suspending driver’s licenses may seem unrelated to our current coronavirus nightmare, but getting rid of the practice would make a huge impact on the easing of the economic headwinds that have resulted in deep financial hardship for so many, especially minority communities that have been hit the hardest by the pandemic. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has also found that Black and Hispanic workers are less able to work from home than their white counterparts.

Driver’s license suspensions have long disproportionately burdened communities of color; extensive research shows that Black and Latino individuals are more likely to be pulled over by the police while driving.

Yuen’s inspiration for the change stemmed from a previous crisis within the African-American community—the 2014 fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, which provoked months of protest and rage.

In an ensuing report, the Department of Justice exposed a system of institutional repression. The Ferguson police force had acted more out of a desire to increase city revenue than protecting and advancing justice. As a consequence, Ferguson’s cops wrote tons of traffic tickets and other citations, disproportionately targeting Black Americans.

The problem was that low-income people often could not afford to pay these tickets, setting off a downward spiral. The citation cost would grow through late fees, their credit score would go down, and their driver’s license would eventually be suspended for nonpayment.

This is not unique to Ferguson. Forty-two states currently suspend driver’s licenses for nonpayment of traffic tickets. An estimated 11 million Americans have lost their licenses for this reason, according to a 2019 estimate by the Fines and Fees Justice Center. Since nearly 90 percent of Americans drive to work, suspended licenses force no-win decisions: Either don’t work, or break the law and risk other repercussions.

Yuen saw uncomfortable parallels in the findings. “You may think this report has nothing to do with us, but it does,” he told a meeting of his fellow court CEOs from across California. A few months later a California coalition of legal service providers published “Not Just a Ferguson Problem.” The report found that four million Californians—overwhelmingly people of color— had had their driver’s license suspended for nonpayment or for missing a traffic court date. “These suspensions make it harder for people to get and keep jobs, further impeding their ability to pay their debt,” the report stated. “Ultimately, they keep people in long cycles of poverty that are difficult, if not impossible to overcome.”

Opponents warned that without suspensions, people would never pay their citations, but Yuen was undeterred. In 2015, San Francisco Superior Court became the first in the country to stop the suspension of driver’s licenses for failure to pay. Other county-level courts soon followed suit, paving the way for Governor Jerry Brown to eliminate the penalty statewide in 2017.

Since then, the San Francisco Superior Court, and my office, the City of San Francisco’s Financial Justice Project, that assesses and reforms fines and fees, keeps getting the same questions from across the country. “How else will we get people to pay their traffic tickets? What will happen to revenues?”

So, we analyzed the data. Contrary to expectations, there was no negative impact on collections. In fact, collections per citation rose slightly in San Francisco. San Francisco courts previously collected roughly $200 per citation on average. In the years following the reform, the amount grew to more than $250.  Similarly, across California, on-time collections went up 8.9 percent in the year following the end of driver’s licenses suspensions for failure to pay.

How did this happen? In San Francisco, the court started doing things differently. They sent monthly reminders. They created accessible payment plans. They began offering low-income people discounts based on their ability to pay. Court leaders were convinced that the easier you make it for people to pay, the more likely it is they will.

Across California, the same thing happened. When the courts stop suspending people’s driver’s licenses, the courts “increase people’s abilities to get or keep jobs, and therefore be able to pay their debts,” according to the California Judicial Council.

Of course, it’s not easy to help people recover from a pandemic. That gives us even more of an incentive to embrace the low-cost, battled-tested options that are out there. Americans now face so many barriers to getting back to normalcy, a needlessly suspended license shouldn’t be one of them.

Fortunately, there is momentum for reform. The Free To Drive Coalition, which aims to end debt-based driver’s license suspensions, is supporting reform bills pending in 15 states. The campaign has support from across the political spectrums—from the ACLU to Koch Industries.

Yuen recently said he would make the same choice again, even if the reform had dented the court’s revenue. But since it did not, we don’t need to be so noble. What are state and local governments waiting for?

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Anne Stuhldreher

Anne Stuhldreher directs The Financial Justice Project for the City and County of San Francisco. She is also a fellow in the Aspen Institute's Financial Security Program.