A Step in the Right Direction

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.


  1. For perspective, the total amount of registry fees collected in fiscal 2014 was $533.2 million (see pages 28-30 of this recent bond prospectus). The costs of running the registry were approximately $80 million (see page 10 of this recent financial statement.)
  2. The cases involve drivers with repeat moving violations. Our insurance laws (Chapter 175, Section 113B, paragraph 14) require that if a person gets too many moving violations they complete driver training or else get their license suspended. In Section 12 of the Safe Driving Act of 2010, we changed the threshold from five violations in three years to three violations in two years. The law creating the Spinal Cord Injury Trust Fund levies a $50 surcharge on reinstatements in cases where people have more than 5 violations in three years. With the 2010 revision in the insurance rules, it had become rarer for people to reach this threshold, so revenues had declined. The measure we just approved would bring the threshold in line with the revised insurance laws and so make it apply more frequently. This is not unreasonable, just something I felt was a step backwards in efforts to lower fees.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

3 replies on “A Step in the Right Direction”

  1. Kudos to you for your leadership in passing S.2014. This is a great step forward for the Commonwealth. I hope we can convince the House to do the same.

    Next up: ending Mandatory Minimums for non-violent drug offenses.

    Let’s move our state forward so we don’t become the national backwater on criminal justice.

  2. This is wonderful news and demonstrates some small but important steps toward greater equity in our criminal justice system. Thank you, Will!

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