Attacking One Facet of Poverty Punishments

Pennsylvania is authorized to take away a person’s driver’s license for any number of reasons. Some of them are as a direct result of behavior that might compromise highway safety, such as reckless driving or driving under the influence. Other reasons, however, amount to a mere punishment of poverty – driver’s licenses are suspended or revoked because people are unable to pay monetary obligations to the court, such as judgments, fines, and fees.

In 2018, Pennsylvania revoked a longstanding law that allowed for driver’s licenses to be suspended as a result of drug offenses, possessing a fake ID, or purchasing tobacco or alcohol as a minor. This was a step in the right direction, but the law did not go nearly far enough. Today, an estimated 375,000 people still have a suspended license for failure to pay or respond to a court proceeding.

Driving with a suspended license can result in both additional fees (that range from hundreds to thousands of dollars) and can land a person in jail for months. And those who try to follow the law while suspended face a strain on one of their most important resources: time. Without a valid driver’s license, commuting to work can transform from a 20-minute drive to an hours-long ride on multiple buses or, in even worse cases, the loss of employment based on the inability to access its location.

Students on this Project are urging Pennsylvania to join states like California in repealing laws that allow for driver’s licenses to be suspended for any non-safety reason. This can be a start toward erasing all statutes that simply criminalize poverty.