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Friday, 21 April 2017 06:04

Nearly 200,000 Individuals Have Driver's Licenses Suspended for Drug Offenses Yearly

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driverslicenseYou can't drive to work if you don't have a driver's license. (Photo: Sam Cox)

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According to a Prison Policy Initiative analysis, "More than 191,000 driver's licenses are suspended every year for drug offenses unrelated to driving."

However, the Drug Policy Alliance reported this month that an effort is underway in Congress to repeal the onerous federal law that has caused this destructive process in a number of states: 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 [and the District of Columbia] have opted-out, demonstrating that the policy is counterproductive.

A 2015 Boston Globe article describe the hardships the law has caused:

The 26-year-old law was designed, in part, to deter drug use.

There's little evidence it has served as a deterrent. However, it has left tens of thousands of former convicts struggling to find work and do other basic things, like get to the grocery store. On a snow-encrusted day last winter, [Edwin] Melendez had to bundle his infant son to his chest and set out to the hospital on foot when he feared the boy was catching pneumonia.

Many have been unable to scrape together the hundreds of dollars in license reinstatement fees once their suspensions are up. And some have resorted to driving without a license, putting themselves at risk of extended suspensions, hundreds of dollars in new fines, and even jail time.

Remember that most states have not abided by the federal mandate. Indeed, in March 2016, Massachusetts repealed the suspension of driver's licenses for drug offenses, as reported by WBUR:

On Wednesday, Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law a bill that repeals most of a 1989 tough-on-crime measure that automatically suspends the driver's license of a person convicted of drug crimes.

The bill, which passed unanimously in both chambers, also waives a $500 reinstatement fee drug offenders had to pay to get their licenses back.

Due to the scaremongering of the feckless and harmful war on drugs, the phrase "drug crimes" connotes something that will cause great harm to society. The reality is that most drug charges are for personal possession, one of the many tragic farces of the war on drugs. For that, in 12 states and the District of Columbia, people still lose their driving privileges.

The Drug Policy Alliance emphasizes the counterproductive hardship caused by driver's license suspensions:

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.

In fact, in the Boston Globe article about Edwin Melendez, it notes that he had to turn down a job because he didn't have a driver's license due to an earlier drug offense, even though he no longer uses drugs:

But when he was offered a state job collecting data on substance abuse treatment, he had to turn it down. The work required travel by car, and an old drug-possession conviction carried a lingering penalty: the suspension of his right to operate a vehicle.

The entire war on drugs needs to be dismantled. However, small victories, such as the one in Massachusetts, should be lauded.

As the Prison Policy Initiative report comments:

Thankfully, suspensions for drug offenses are increasingly falling out of favor. There is bipartisan momentum for reform; in the last three years, five state legislatures have overwhelmingly abolished automatic suspensions. Thousands of safe drivers have been able to get back on the road: people who can legally drive to the grocery store, to medical appointments, to their place of employment, and to pick up a child after school. It's time for driver's license suspensions for non-driving drug offenses to get out of the way.

May more states -- and the federal government -- follow suit.