Pennsylvania should stop automatically suspending driver's licenses for non-driving-related drug convictions, a criminal justice group says.
A report by the Prison Policy Initiative focused on 12 states, including Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., that automatically suspend driver's licenses for all drug convictions.
Such policies are a relic of the "war on drugs" and should be changed, the report's authors advocate. The laws make it harder for those with such convictions to access jobs, the report said.
The report noted that only Virginia, Michigan, Florida, and New Jersey suspend more licenses annually than Pennsylvania.
"These suspensions are part of a whole world of suspensions that are completely unrelated to driving," such as suspensions for child support and unpaid court fines, said Joshua Aiken, policy fellow for the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative.
License suspensions should be reserved for unsafe drivers, he said, and not for other criminal justice issues.
"One unnecessary driver's license suspension could throw any person's life off track. But for people who are formerly incarcerated, or finishing probation/parole, the consequences are especially harsh. At the very time people should be finding stable housing, securing employment, and reconnecting with their communities, drug-related license suspension laws remove a critical avenue to success," the report stated.
A bill introduced in the last legislative session by State Rep. Ed Gainey (D., Allegheny) that would have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana also would have ended license suspension for that offense.
Gainey could not be reached for comment.
Patrick Nightingale, a local criminal defense attorney and marijuana reform activist, said in his view such suspensions are not a deterrent to drug use and force people to drive with suspended licenses.
"Every one of our clients who we handle a suspension for, it is a barrier to employment," said Morgan Jenkins, an attorney at the Neighborhood Legal Services Association in Pittsburgh, an organization that assists low-income people with legal issues.
According to the report, Pennsylvania's Department of Transportation denied the organization's Right-to-Know request regarding the number of license suspensions for non-driving-related drug offenses, because it said it did not have any records containing the data in the format requested. Under the state's Right-to-Know law, the agency is not required to create a record that it does not currently have.
The report's authors used 2010 data provided by Pennsylvania and several other states for the American Association of Motor Vehicles' Best Practices Guide to Reducing Suspended Drivers. That analysis found Pennsylvania suspended 19,969 licenses in that year for those convicted of possession, sale, manufacturing, and delivery of drugs.
A PennDot spokeswoman said she could not verify if that number was correct.