Florida suspends more drivers’ licenses as a result of drug convictions than almost any other state in the country, but the punishment creates more problems than it actually solves, according to a criminal justice reform group.
New research by the Prison Policy Initiative, a national nonprofit dedicated to reducing mass incarceration, shows Florida suspends on average about 24,430 drivers’ licenses a year due to non-driving-related drug offenses. Only Michigan and Virginia suspend more.
In a report called “Reinstating Common Sense,” author Joshua Aiken states that the suspensions waste taxpayer money, don’t deter criminal activity and serve as a roadblock for individuals who are trying to responsibly move forward after paying their debt to society.
“Our criminal justice system should not set people up to fail,” the analysis concluded.
In 1991, as part of the “War on Drugs,” Congress threatened to reduce highway funding if states didn’t impose drivers’ license suspensions, in addition to existing criminal penalties, for drug crimes.
Most states have since exercised an opt-out clause contained in the federal legislation that still allows for continued highway funding, but not Florida.
Florida is one of only 12 states, along with the District of Columbia, that hasn’t changed course. Together, researchers estimate these states suspend about 191,000 licenses a year for drug offenses.
Although “tough on crime” politicians contend the automatic suspensions discourage criminal activity, the Prison Policy Initiative says that hasn’t panned out.
According to the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, “there is no evidence which indicates that suspending a person’s driving privileges for social non-conformance reasons is effective in gaining compliance with the reason for the original non-driving suspension.”
The National Institute of Justice, when summarizing “a large body of research related to deterrents,” found that “increasing the severity of punishment does little to deter crime.”
Perversely, suspending drivers’ licenses for non-driving related offenses could steer people back to jail or prison, the report indicates.
Research shows that securing a job is one of the most important factors in reducing recidivism, or repeat criminal offenses. But Florida’s automatic one-year drivers’ license suspension for drug convictions puts ex-offenders at an employment disadvantage.
“Employers routinely require proof that individuals have a valid driver’s license in order to even be considered for a job,” the report says. “Job applications are routinely dismissed because applicants have a suspended license and cannot legally drive.”
Being employed is also frequently a condition of probation and parole, failing to meet the terms of which could send released inmates back to jail or prison, sometimes for years.
The report cites a statistic that an estimated 75 percent of people with suspended licenses drive at some point during the length of their suspensions — sometimes out of necessity.
New Jersey suspends about 20,500 drivers’ licenses every year for drug offenses, with half qualifying as low-income. More than 40 percent those individuals reported losing their jobs as a result of not being legally able to drive.
“These suspensions create a self-fulfilling prophecy. By making employment opportunities harder to access, driver’s license suspensions produce economic instability,” the report states.
It’s not just drug convictions. In Florida, failing to pay court fees, passing worthless checks, misdemeanor theft, providing alcohol to minors, failure to pay child support, graffiti and school truancy are all grounds for a one-year suspension.
Minors of driving age must be enrolled in a Florida school, or have an exemption, or their driver’s license can be suspended.
According to the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, 4,020 licenses were suspended in 2012-13 for failing to meet school attendance requirements. The license reinstatement fees totaled $241,389.
Driving on a suspended license comes with criminal penalties. If it’s determined that an individual was not aware that their license had been suspended, they could receive as little as a citation for a moving violation.
If an individual knowingly was driving on a suspended license, penalties range from a second degree misdemeanor to a third degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
Punishing otherwise satisfactory drivers for unrelated offenses burdens law enforcement and court systems, the report states.
According to the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, it can take up to nine hours total for a law enforcement officer to make a road stop, secure proper towing of a vehicle, transport an unlawful driver to jail, complete the associated paperwork, attend court, and perform other related administrative duties.
In New York, 90 percent of the state’s annual 17,697 drug-related license suspensions had nothing to do with driving. Of Virginia’s 38,849 annual drug-related suspensions — first among states — 99 percent did not involve a motor vehicle, the initiative’s data shows.
According to the report, Florida is spending about $72,000 a year on paper, envelopes and postage in order to correspond with people whose licenses were suspended for non-driving reasons.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, attempted to reduce the one-year driver’s license suspension period for drug convictions to six months earlier this year, but the effort failed to pass the state Legislature.
“License suspensions are a counterproductive waste of government resources and time. Instead of making our roads safer, traffic safety officials are forced to address non-driving suspensions while unsafe drivers get to stay on the road,” concluded Aiken.