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I-TEAM: Driver’s License Suspensions largely penalize non-driving offenses

Failure to pay forfeitures is number one by a large margin.
Wisconsin Drivers Licenses
Posted at 6:16 PM, Nov 17, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-17 19:16:15-05

MILWAUKEE — While hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin drivers have their licenses suspended each year, the vast majority are being penalized for non-driving offenses.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, 1,686,536 drivers have had their license suspended since 2017. More than half, 52.7 percent, have had their license suspended for failure to pay; a penalty the case managers at Wisconsin Community Services (WCS) say is backwards.

“These are tickets, non-safety violation tickets,” Jay Tucker, Director of Workforce Initiatives at WCS, said. “Wisconsin has over 200 different ways that they suspend your license and the number one way that we see is failure to pay forfeitures.”

Failure to pay forfeitures is number one by a large margin. Failure to pay has suspended more licenses in the last five years than the next four highest offenses combined.

Top 5 reasons for license suspensions since 2017

  1. Failure to pay forfeitures – 889,938 (52.77%)
  2. Driver record – 255,726 (15.16%)
  3. Operating under the influence – 121,046 (7.18%)
  4. Blood alcohol concentration – 83,026 (4.92%)
  5. Noncompliance with Assessment Interview – 55,138 (3.27%)
    • TOTAL OF ALL SUSPENSIONS SINCE 2017: 1,686,536

Comparatively, 18,638 drivers have had their licenses suspended for various types of speeding and 108 drivers have had their licenses suspended for reckless driving.

According to the DOT, a person caught reckless driving would receive six points on their license. If a person hits 12 points in a year, they would face the lowest suspension; two months.

Driver’s License Suspensions largely penalizing non-driving offenses

Comparatively, if a person does not pay a traffic ticket within one to 30 days of their due date, they could have their license suspended for a year, or until the fine is paid.

“We have to be very careful,” Tucker said. “We’re talking about two separate issues. Suspending people for failure to pay and reckless driving. We have to be very specific on not associating the two. Sanctioning people for not being able to pay a ticket and suspending their license or sanctioning someone who is running a red light and not taking those licenses. Those are two separate things. If I’m running a red light and I’m endangering the lives of others, then definitely. We need to hold those penalties higher. But we don’t need to equate the two.”

At WCS, Tucker and Taffie Foster-Toney work to help people overcome systemic barriers. With the help of Legal Action of Wisconsin, the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee Area Technical College, the group helps restore licenses for more than 120 people per year as part of the Center for Driver’s License Recovery and Employability. You can click here for help getting your driver’s license restored.

“It can be cumbersome trying to maneuver through the different court systems, through the paperwork, to try to get what you need to get your license restored,” Tucker said. “With the case manager, it can help you stay on track.”

“[License suspensions for failure to pay] ends up being a penalty for those that cannot pay and that already have a number of barriers against them as far as joblessness, homelessness and everything else,” Tucker said.

The services at WCS benefit mostly people of color; a population that already faces some of the highest poverty rates in the country.

Milwaukee frequently ranks as the worst city in America for African Americans. According to a study by the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, African Americans in the city have the highest poverty rate and unemployment rate in the country.

Foster-Toney points out, the failure to pay suspensions come from non-payment on simple fines like parking on the wrong side of the street overnight or not wearing a seatbelt. By suspending driving privileges for a group of people who may struggle to be able to pay these fines, it’s a vicious cycle that impacts communities of color in a more devastating way.

“Why suspend someone’s driver’s license and make the barriers even harder for them to get from point A to point B?” Foster-Toney said. “They need their license back and also to take their kids to school. Fifty percent of the jobs are in the suburbs. Having that license is very important.”

So a ticket comes in and that person can’t afford to pay it. If they miss the deadline by one to 30 days, their license gets suspended. With no license, it makes it more difficult to get to work or land a job so they don’t have the income necessary to pay the original ticket.

Cycle of license suspension
It's a vicious cycle for people whose license gets suspended for not paying fines. Inability to pay the fine leads to the license being suspended which in turn makes it harder to work or find a job so it's harder to pay off the initial fine.

Tucker says, by creating this cycle, it forces people to make a hard decision between driving without a license or not making money. So those drivers could potentially be driving without a valid license and it creates yet another disparity.

According to Tucker, Black Milwaukee drivers were 9.5 times more likely to experience a traffic stop than white Milwaukee drivers in 2020. According to the DOT, since 2017, 15,894 drivers had their licenses suspended for operating while suspended.

Because of this, the current rules disproportionately impact people of color in acquiring a job. Tucker says a study showed 42 percent of respondents lost their job due to a driver’s license suspension and 45 percent of those who lost their jobs remained unemployed during the entire period of suspension.

Tucker and Foster-Toney say they continue to urge lawmakers to remove the license suspension as a penalty for failure to pay forfeitures. They say 22 other states have already adopted this practice and they hope Wisconsin will be next.

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