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Pennsylvania should stop suspending driver’s licenses for non-driving offenses | Editorial

Pennsylvania's added punishment for a non-driving related offense is senseless overkill.

Pennsylvania  suspends driver's licenses of 19,000 ex-offenders a year locking them in a "geographic prison." Without a license, they can't get jobs and move on with their lives.
Pennsylvania suspends driver's licenses of 19,000 ex-offenders a year locking them in a "geographic prison." Without a license, they can't get jobs and move on with their lives.Read moreHandout

After Pennsylvania is finished punishing people for offenses ranging from underage drinking to drug crimes, it piles on by suspending their driver's licenses, robbing ex-offenders — including young people — of their ability to get on with their lives.

While an outgrowth of the war on drugs, mandatory revocation of driver's licenses applies to serious offenses, like drug use and failure to pay child support, but it can also apply to those under 21 using a fake ID, drinking alcohol, or using tobacco.  This is on top of the prison sentences, paycheck garnishment, fines, and community service the crimes initially engender.

The state suspends an offender's driver's license for six months for each count on which a person is convicted — even though the offenses didn't involve driving.

Losing a license can force young people to the sidelines of jobs and society and ex-offenders into poverty. Without access to a car, it's nearly impossible to hold down a job. Without a job, parents can't pay child support, drug users can't get to treatment, and other offenders have an added barrier to becoming self-sufficient.

If drug users can't get to treatment, they could fall back into addiction and resume the very behaviors that got them into trouble.

Joyce Douglass, a retired career parole officer in Pittsburgh, says the state's harsh driver's license suspensions put people in a "geographic prison." They're "pretty much under house arrest."  She rightly asks: "People have to eat and pay rent. How do they do that without working?" They can't. In her 25 years of helping parolees, Douglass says she never saw the value in automatic license suspensions. Neither do we.

This added punishment for a non-driving-related offense is senseless overkill. It is a leftover from the  "war on drugs" mind-set that stressed punishment over treatment and that led to mass incarcerations, particularly among minorities.

In 1982, just before the drug war's higher penalties were enacted, about 40,900 people were imprisoned on drug offenses across the country. By 2016, there were over 450,000 in prison on drug charges,  according to the Sentencing Project.

States started piling driver's license suspensions onto the new, tougher punishments.  But most states have since realized that's counterproductive and stopped penalizing their ex-offenders by scrapping the suspension laws. However, Pennsylvania and 11 others have not. Every year, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, the state suspends the licenses of about 19,000 people who have already paid for their offenses.  

Douglass is among the activists lobbying for a reasonable bill to ban the suspensions of driver's licenses for non-driving offenses, as well as a resolution exempting the state from loss of federal highway funds for halting the suspensions.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Rick Saccone (R., Allegheny),  made it through the House by a vote of 192-3 in April but seems stuck in the Senate Transportation Committee headed by Sen. John Rafferty (R., Montgomery).

Rafferty should hear the bill and move it along for a vote in the full Senate when legislators come back from their summer break.  Let people get on with their lives.