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Guest opinion: Driver’s licenses are necessary. Stop suspending them

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In today’s age, reliable transportation is everything. And in Utah, not only does a car or truck provide convenience and comfort, it’s often a necessity in rural areas and for commuters.

Now imagine that a person’s driver’s license is suddenly suspended for no good reason. This would be an incredible inconvenience — and even worse, it could ruin their ability to financially support themselves and their family. Arranging public transportation, if it’s even a viable option, can add hours and high costs to a commute. Walking or biking is another option, but it may not be feasible depending on the weather or location. Suddenly, their kids can’t rely on them to take them to school during the week. Everyday conveniences like stopping at the grocery store for milk or visiting a friend across town become far more significant events that demand planning and time.

For residents of rural communities, life without a driver’s license becomes almost impossible. The nearest hospital, school or courthouse could be dozens or more miles away — and calling an Uber or hopping on a train isn’t an option.

Many people in Utah don’t have to imagine these scenarios, as driver’s licenses are routinely suspended for non-driving related offenses, like unpaid fines. In any given year in Utah, there are more than 30,000 driver’s license suspensions for failure to pay fines or appear in court. Nationwide, this number jumps to 11 million suspensions. Utah is just one of 44 states that still take away the legal ability to drive for nonpayment of fines or failure to appear in court. Lawmakers in Utah, New York, Florida, Washington, Maryland and Virginia have introduced legislation to stop this practice. The momentum for change is occurring because the negative effects far outweigh any perceived benefit of suspending licenses.

Driver’s license suspensions make it more difficult for people to pay off their fines. Studies conducted in New Jersey and Phoenix show that 42-50% of people whose licenses were suspended lost their jobs. People should never be forced into circumstances where they can’t make it to work just because they could not afford to pay a fine or missed a court date. The government is making it more difficult for people with financial issues to earn money and pay their debts when they take away a person’s driving ability. Those in debt need to be allowed to work those debts off without risking losing their job.

Fortunately, Utah Rep. Cory Maloy is sponsoring House Bill 146 to ban driver’s license suspensions in certain circumstances. Supported by Right on Crime and the Free to Drive Coalition, the legislation includes provisions that ensure Utahns will no longer have their driver’s licenses suspended for failing to pay their fines. It will also ensure that individuals will no longer have their driver’s licenses suspended for failing to appear in court for offenses that don’t relate to unsafe driving.

Showing up to court is certainly important. But for lower level offenses, suspending a person’s license for nonappearance is unnecessarily punitive. Utah courts already routinely issue a warrant for arrest after a nonappearance. Taking away a person’s legal driving ability on top of the warrant is a preemptive punishment that only causes further harm. HB146 allows courts to continue to suspend driver’s licenses for nonappearance when the charges are driving related and a Class B misdemeanor or above. This strikes the right balance between public safety and individual liberty.

More states are recognizing the need to stop penalizing individuals with punishments that exceed the underlying crime. And for Utah, HB146 is a good place to start. Rep. Maloy’s legislative approach holds Utahns accountable for their actions while keeping the public safe.

Marc A. Levin is the vice president of criminal justice policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.