This week the Senate took an important step towards making it easier for people who have gotten in trouble to get out of trouble and get back to work. I’m hopeful for more progress in this session.
We voted unanimously to repeal provisions of state law that automatically suspend the driver’s licenses of people convicted of drug offenses and require them to pay reinstatement fees of $500 or more. I’ve written at length about this previously so readers may be familiar with the issue. There are national efforts to stop using driver’s license suspension as a means to punish people for non-driving offenses.
Once someone has paid the price of incarceration for a criminal offense, our real challenge is to reintegrate them into society. Efforts to facilitate “re-entry” with jobs, education and housing assistance will always be constrained by lack of funding. So, we also want to identify and remove the bureaucratic barriers to re-entry. If we want people to work, we shouldn’t be making it hard for them to get a driver’s license.
There are a number of other license rules that we need to look at — for example, there is a rule that suspends drivers’ licenses for failure to pay child support (General Laws, Chapter 90, Section 22(g)). It should be obvious that destroying a parent’s capacity to get to work is not a good way to increase child support payments.
We also have to look at the high fees we charge people for license reinstatement. License reinstatement alone can cost up to $1200 and there are often other fees or fines due at the same time. Collectively, these costs can be prohibitive, yet for people to work, they need to drive, so they do. Operating-after-suspension cases are a big part of the case flow in district courts. Most judges understand that the fees are often beyond the means of many, so the cases are typically handled leniently, but that reduces the credibility of the law. It is not uncommon to see records showing half a dozen arrests for driving after suspension. Ultimately, to restore credibility, a judge will lose patience and lock up the offender, doing irreparable harm to his work prospects. I believe that the root cause of the problem is excessive fees and fines.
That’s why I voted against a measure we also passed this week that operates to increase reinstatement fees. It was estimated that the measure will generate approximately $100,000 per year1 from a surcharge of $50 on certain reinstatement cases2, apparently affecting approximately 2,000 people per year. That’s 2,000 people whose climb back to work will be just a little steeper. The goal of the measure was to increase funding for spinal cord injury research. I would like to solve this tragic problem, and I’d like to see much more substantial funding for spinal cord research in the budget, but this measure won’t help in a meaningful way and I can’t vote to make it more costly for people of limited means to get recover their licenses.
We also need to look at the fees we impose on people on probation and parole. Depending on the type of case, these fees can total well over $50 per month. Charging these fees on young people with no parental support and no job is a great way to push people them back to into crime. The fees generate over $20 million for the state budget, so eliminating them won’t be easy, but it’s a priority for me.
I’m grateful for the for the opportunity to serve at a time when political momentum is building to meet these challenges.