Just when it looked like the country was so locked in partisan gridlock that no one could agree about anything, along came the Republican-dominated General Assembly, the Democratic governor, and the Virginia Supreme Court to put into place reforms that make it easier for people owing court fines to keep their drivers licenses and continue driving to work.
More than 600,000 Virginians have had their drivers’ licenses suspended for failure to pay court fines, and nearly 200,000 have had them suspended for drug offenses unrelated to driving. The penalties, which arose from war-against-drugs legislation in the 1980s, trapped people in a cycle of poverty. But over the past decade, the unintended consequences have grown too big to ignore.
As House Speaker William H. Howell described it during a panel discussion at the annual banquet of the Drive to Work non-profit Monday, the suspension of drivers licenses for failure to pay court costs is reminiscent of 18th-century debtor’s prison. If someone can’t pay his court debts, he can’t drive. If he can’t drive, he can’t work. If he can’t work, he can’t pay his court fines. And if he gets caught driving repeatedly with an unsuspended license, he goes to jail… where he can’t work or repay fines.
As it became increasingly clear that the license-suspension penalty was adding immeasurably to the hardship of poor Virginians — an awareness raised largely by the Drive to Work program — a bipartisan consensus emerged that the system needed to change. After picking at the edges of the problem for several years, the General Assembly passed six bills in the 2017 session addressing the drive-to-work issue.
Perhaps the most significant reform was the measure that gives judges more leeway to consider an individual’s circumstances before suspending his or her driver’s license. A law enacted in 2015 conveyed a policy message to the judiciary that they should apply the law more flexibility, but provided few specifics. The Judicial Council, which is charged with overseeing the rules and procedures of Virginia’s judicial system, issued guidelines to local judges on how to apply the law. In 2016, the chief justice of the Supreme Court appointed a panel to devise “rules of law” that carried greater weight than the guidelines. Early this year, Del. Manoli Loupassi, R-Richmond, introduced a bill that would embed the rules of court into state statute.
Speaking in the panel discussion, Loupassi described how he thought his bill had “zero percent” chance of passing until Governor Terry McAuliffe and Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran made it an issue. Before he knew it, other key legislators fell in line. “It’s a great thing,” he said. “There is something inherently good and positive about people working.”
Associate Supreme Court Justice William C. Mims praised the bipartisan nature of the legislation. The reforms have occurred the right way, he said. They weren’t imposed by judicial decree but emerged organically from the interaction between the General Assembly, the Supreme Court and the McAuliffe administration, which added a key provision to the bill.
“The system worked, and it worked for all the right reasons,” he told Bacon’s Rebellion. The courts “plugged mercy into the equation.”
Related laws enacted this year created a uniform set of standards for people with suspended licenses to repay their court fees, and gave judges more discretion not to suspend the driver’s license of some one convicted of a first-time marijuana possess in offenses unrelated to their driving.
In a keynote speech, McAuliffe framed the drive-to-work initiatives as part of a larger effort to make it easier for felons to return to productive lives after their release from prison. He cited other programs such as transferring youths from central state-run facilities to locally based programs near their homes, cutting the cost for prisoners to make phone calls and maintain contact with family members, and starting programs that help felons get their state ID cards and drivers’ licenses before their release from prison. It’s no accident, he added, that Virginia has the lowest recidivism rate in the country.
“We want everyone back in society,” he said. “We want to help their re-entry. We want them providing for their families, and paying taxes.”
While great progress has been made, O Randolph Rollins, founder of Drive to Work, said more remains to be done. Looking ahead, he wants to decouple drug convictions from the loss of driving privileges. The law enacted in the 2017 session, which relaxed the penalty for marijuana possession, was a “baby step” in the right direction, he told Bacon’s Rebellion. He wants to break the link between all drugs — even including cocaine, heroin and meth — and driving privileges.
Roughly 185,000 Virginians have had their licenses suspended for drug offenses, he said. Only about 1,000 of those offenses were tied to driving, such as driving under the influence of drugs. If lawmakers want to put drug abusers in jail or go to treatment, that’s a different debate. But it makes no sense to take away their right to drive, he said. Taking away their license does little to deter them from abusing drugs. But it does interfere with their ability to make a living and support a family.