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How Wisconsin Punishes the Poor

National Public Radio reports how poor people who can’t pay fines lose their drivers licenses.

A two-part series by National Public Radio uses Wisconsin as the poster-child for unjust treatment of low-income, mostly minority citizens, who can lose their drivers licenses for failure to pay a fine.

These reasons can include unpaid traffic tickets, bouncing checks; or minor juvenile offenses like missing school, using false identification to buy alcohol, or shoplifting.

“Increasingly, people who study driver safety say this makes little sense, NPR reports. One national study raised concerns that “police and state and local motor vehicle officials find too much of their time and budget tied up going after people with suspensions for minor lawbreaking that has nothing to do with safe driving,” the series reports.

“If you get caught drinking and driving in Wisconsin, and it’s your first offense, you lose your license for nine months, the story goes on. “For a hit and run, the punishment is suspension for one year.

“But if you don’t pay a ticket for a minor driving offense, such as driving with a broken tail light, you can lose your license for two years.”

“It’s an incredible policy,” John Pawasarat told NPR, “a policy of punishing people who can’t pay their fines.” Pawasarat has done the research for the UW-Milwaukee Policy & Research Institute that has documented the huge number of people who have lost their license for failure to pay fines.

In metro-area Milwaukee, with its lack of transit connections to suburban jobs, this has become a huge barrier to getting employed. “Two out of three African-American men in this neighborhood, of working age, don’t have a driver’s license,” Pawasarat told NPR, while walking down Martin Luther King Avenue in Milwaukee. “And are consequently unable to access the jobs that are beyond the bus lines.”

Robert Eger, who did the 2013 study for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators that raised concerns about this policy, found that at least 18 states will suspend someone’s driver’s license for failure to pay the fines on nondriving traffic violations. “And four states will suspend it for not paying parking tickets,” the series noted. “Among the other reasons: school truancy, bouncing a check, not paying college loans, graffiti and littering.”

The first story gives a look at the problem nationally, with considerable attention to the work of former Milwaukee Municipal Court judge Jim Gramling to find solutions to the problem. Gramling helped found the Center for Driver’s License Recovery and Employability, an organization that gives legal help to low income people facing this problem.

The second story focused on McArthur Edwards, a 29-year-old, African American in Milwaukee with four children who lacks a drivers license due to fines he owed that quickly multiplied after he was ticketed and fined for driving with a broken light over his back license plate.

“The most common way that people lose their driver’s license in Wisconsin is not for drunk driving or other unsafe driving,” the story notes. “It’s for failure to pay the fine on a ticket for a non-moving traffic offense. Those make up 56 percent of all license suspensions in the state, according to statistics from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.”

While some defend the need to have consequences for those who don’t pay fines on tickets, others question whether suspending a drivers license makes sense as a punishment.

A recent analysis of city records by the non-profit Justice Initiatives Institute found no evidence that the long suspensions stop people from driving and getting more tickets, NPR reported. “Sometimes, people then get arrested and put in jail — which is expensive for the city. Mostly, the report says, the two-year suspensions just put poor people more in debt.”

It should be noted that Wisconsin’s policy goes back many years and has had bipartisan support, not to mention support from city leaders who use the threat of a driver’s license suspension to collect on unpaid municipal tickets. Is this revenue for the city worth the toll it takes on mostly minority, low income people lacking jobs?

When asked by Urban Milwaukee for solutions Pawasarat offered this response:

“Two steps could be taken immediately.

(1) The state should reinstate state aids for driver’s education in the high schools using DOT funds. (Wisconsin stopped funding driver’s education in 2004.)

(2) The Mayor and Common Council should cease the policy of taking away driver’s licenses from residents with unpaid municipal tickets. Using the driver’s license as a revenue collection tool has very negative impacts on the ability of low-income workers to obtain and hold jobs.

We have a report on the ‘failure to pay forfeiture’ suspension policies here.”

Longer-term, the state legislature could look at reforms that would reduce the use of driver’s license suspensions for non-driving offenses. While there has been discussion of this by the legislature, no action has been taken. If you want citizens to get jobs and become less reliant on government assistance the answer is to make it easier to get a job.

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