Washington, D.C. – Today, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) delivered the following opening remarks, as prepared, during the markup of H.R. 2453, the Driving for Opportunity Act of 2021:
“I am proud to support the bipartisan Driving for Opportunity Act, which would provide grants to help states move away from the practice of suspending, revoking, or refusing to renew a driver’s license on account of a failure to pay a civil or criminal fee or fine.
“H.R. 2453 marks the Committee’s first opportunity this Congress to address the practice by state and local governments of imposing fees and fines in the criminal justice process—a practice that has devastated millions of families by trapping them in a cycle of poverty and punishment.
“The consequence of not paying any fees and fines imposed can be severe and wide-ranging, and may include ballooning debt, driver’s license suspension, diminished economic opportunity, and in extreme cases a warrant may be issued and jail time ordered. These practices can, in effect, subject individuals to a modern debtor’s prison.
“Today, we consider the Driving for Opportunity Act, which would promote the end of one of the most widespread and harmful consequences of nonpayment of fees and fines—driver’s license suspension.
“Throughout the United States, over 10 million people have had their driver’s licenses suspended or revoked after they failed to pay court-ordered fines and fees. Both the individual and cumulative effect of this number of driver’s license suspensions is, not surprisingly, profound.
“The vast majority of Americans depend on their car to drive to work, and nearly 30 percent of jobs themselves require driving a vehicle. Suspending a person’s license frequently costs them their job and keeps them from finding a new one, which removes their ability to be financially stable and to provide for their family. In many cases, a person with a suspended license continues to drive rather than forfeit their ability to earn a living, which only subjects them to further legal jeopardy if they are caught.
“As with many aspects of our justice system, this burden falls hardest on the poor, who cannot afford to pay the required fees and fines, and those who live in rural areas, where public transit or ride-sharing options may be limited.
“Driver’s license suspension also has a broader economic impact—from higher unemployment rolls to greater costs imposed on businesses that must train new workers to replace those who lose their jobs because of a suspended license.
“The loss of economic activity and the family hardships due to driver’s license suspensions, on account of nonpayment of fees and fines, cannot be justified by the practice’s purported justifications—that they raise revenue and promote public safety.
“Whether states actually generate revenue by suspending licenses is dubious. Most states do not track the full fiscal impact of collecting unpaid debt and the associated criminal justice costs. In fact, ending the practice of suspensions might be the more fiscally sound practice. The fiscal year after California ended driver’s licenses suspension for non-payment of debt, the state reported an $82-million-dollar increase in nondelinquent collections.
“A number of studies suggest that alternatives to suspension have a greater success in generating revenue.
“A study that looked at one jurisdiction’s efforts to help individuals with traffic fines pursue alternative payment options found that fifty-three percent of people with reinstated drivers’ licenses found employment as a result of reinstatement, and over forty percent reported an increase in income associated with the program.
“In addition, from a public safety perspective, reducing law enforcement’s encounters with individuals with suspended licenses would free up law enforcement to take on more appropriate tasks. For example, the Fees and Fines Justice Center reports that for every one percent increase in revenue from fees and fines, six percent fewer violent crimes and eight percent fewer property crimes are solved.
“The states have started the push to repeal their driver’s license suspensions. Recently, my home state of New York took the right step and stopped suspending licenses for unpaid court debt.
“This legislation would help other states—many of which saw declining revenues during the pandemic—to end this unjust practice by covering the costs of reinstating previously suspended driver’s licenses and incentivizing others to end the practice.
“I thank Representative Mary Gay Scanlon, the sponsor of this legislation, for her vision and her leadership in promoting a more equitable criminal justice system that does not criminalize poverty.
“This bipartisan, bicameral bill has united in support groups from across the political spectrum, from the Fraternal Order of Police to the ACLU. I ask my colleagues to join the diverse coalition that supports the Driving for Opportunity Act in supporting this bill today.”
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