America’s cruel way to punish poor debtors: take away their driver’s license

Damian Stinnie is one of the millions of people in America who have had their driver’s licenses suspended because of unpaid debt. Despite spending much of his childhood in foster care, Stinnie graduated from high school with a 3.9 grade point average. While seeking work after losing his first low-paying job, he received four traffic violations and racked up $1,000 in fines and costs.

Because he was unable to pay the full amount within 30 days, his license was automatically suspended. As is routine in many states, including Virginia, where Stinnie lived, no one asked him if he could afford to pay. So, like three-quarters of those suspended, Stinnie lost his license essentially because he was poor, not because of the infractions themselves.

At that point, Stinnie joined the millions of Americans who face the dilemma of getting to work, taking a sick child to the hospital, or buying groceries while risking penalties for driving with a suspended license.

Needless to say, many people take the risk because they have no choice; at least 75% of those who have their licenses suspended keep driving. So the debtor may be arrested again for driving without a license, this time to be incarcerated and certainly to be hit with another set of fines and fees.

Across the United States, many jurisdictions use this cruel method to coerce payment from people who owe fines and fees to the state. State and local governments do this in large part to balance their books in the face of dwindling tax revenues, heedless of the fact that it makes it much more difficult for the working poor to get to the jobs they need to pay off their debts.

People with means can often forestall suspensions by paying fines and fees, but those without means are trapped in the vicious circle of repeated suspensions and ever deepening debt.

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