When Virginia lawmakers convene in Richmond in a few weeks, their to-do list should include fixing Virginia’s excessive and unproductive habit of taking away people’s driver’s licenses.
Courts suspend the driving privileges of one in six Virginians for failing to pay court costs and fines. The penalty usually falls on the poor, many of whom cannot scrape together a lump sum but would be happy to abide by a realistic payment plan if one were offered. Too often, however, none is: Courts frequently fail to take into account a defendant’s ability to pay, and rarely offer them a chance to make restitution through other means — such as community service.
Compounding the problem, a new study finds that another 39,000 Virginians lose their driving privileges over minor drug offenses — even misdemeanor possession charges that do not bring jail time. The six-month suspension is automatic. (Nationwide, states suspend driver’s licenses for an array of infractions from littering to unpaid student loans.)
Virginia’s Supreme Court has taken administrative steps to alleviate the former problem; state lawmakers need to reinforce those steps through legislation, and to address the second problem the same way. Most people need to drive to get to work; taking away licenses takes away employment, too — except for those who are willing to risk getting nabbed for driving without a license and suffering further consequences.
Driving might be a privilege, but it is not merely a privilege. It is one means by which people exercise their right to move about freely from place to place, and revoking driving privileges sharply curtails that right. License suspensions should not be the go-to penalty they have become; governments should take away driving privileges only when an individual demonstrates that he can’t be trusted with them. In short, only driving offenses — DUI, reckless driving, vehicular manslaughter — should carry driving consequences. Let the punishment fit the crime.