Debt shouldn’t stop you from driving

Jenny Kim, Koch Industries' deputy general counsel and vice president of public policy, explores how debt-based driver's license suspensions and revocations don’t protect or promote safer communities in the following op-ed for The Wall Street Journal.

September 9, 2019

min read

My company, Koch Industries, employs tens of thousands of people who depend on driving each day. So do most Americans, who drive daily to work, school and elsewhere. But for millions, the ability to drive could be taken away in the blink of an eye, upending life as they know it—and for reasons that have nothing to do with safety. Forty-four states have policies of suspending driver’s licenses over unpaid fines, fees or court debts.

There are some good reasons to suspend licenses, such as for driving infractions. But research suggests that as of 2006 nearly 40% of license suspensions stemmed from unrelated missteps and that it remains common practice today: unpaid parking tickets, court costs, child support, minor drug offenses like the first time possession of a controlled substance, and even unpaid student loans. Some states suspend licenses automatically, without a hearing. As of 2017, nearly 1,000 South Dakota residents couldn’t hold a driver’s license because they owe money to state universities.

Revoking the license of a person who can’t pay off fines or loans exacerbates the underlying problem. Myriad professions—including taxi drivers, cable installers, caregivers, construction workers, HVAC technicians, landscaping crews, maintenance workers and plumbers—require the ability to drive. If a plumber loses his driver’s license, so goes his job and his ability to make good on any money he owes.

Given that 83% of American adults drive multiple times a week, it shouldn’t be surprising that many people with suspended licenses continue to get behind the wheel anyway. This often gets them in more trouble. If pulled over, they face further fines, fees and sometimes even incarceration. This can perpetuate a cycle of poverty that many spend decades trying to escape.

License suspensions hit struggling minority communities particularly hard. In one low-income neighborhood in Milwaukee, two of every three working-age African-Americans do not have a license, according to John Pawasarat who runs the Employment Training Institute at the University of Wisconsin. A 2016 study found that 95% of California ZIP Codes where African-Americans made up more than a fifth of the population had license suspension rates above the state average.

Koch Industries has been working on criminal-justice reform for more than a decade, in part because we know how often people get caught in the justice system for reasons that have nothing to do with public safety. Debt-based license suspensions and revocations don’t protect or promote safer communities. They epitomize government overreach and are callous and punitive to the most vulnerable.

That’s why we are excited to join the Fines and Fees Justice Center and hundreds of other organizations as part of the Free to Drive Coalition. The coalition will kick off its national campaign with a launch event in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 10. We are working with this varied group of partners to eliminate harmful debt-based suspension practices and put more people back on the road to success.

Jenny Kim is deputy general counsel and vice president of public policy of Koch Industries.

This op-ed appeared in The Wall Street Journal on September 9, 2019.