Last month, a class action lawsuit was filed challenging the state of Virginia’s practice of suspending driver’s licenses over unpaid fines.
Over 900,000 Virginians, or about 11% of the population, have suspended licenses. While some of those suspensions come from driving-related offenses, the majority of licenses were suspended because of unpaid court debts.
The goal of suspending a driver’s license for unpaid debts is to give people more incentive to pay. But when people are unable to pay their court debt and their license is suspended, they actually become less able to pay.
People who can’t pay their court fines are denied their primary means of travel, necessary for everything from buying groceries and getting children to school to going to work. If people with suspended licenses can’t get to work and lose their jobs, they will be even less able to pay. The problem is only worse for people in areas without public transportation.
This puts Virginians with suspended licenses in a tough spot: either obey the suspension and potentially lose their jobs, or drive on a suspended license and risk further fines.
But Virginia’s not alone in this problem. As NPR reported in 2014:

…at least 18 states will suspend someone’s driver’s license for failure to pay the fines on nondriving traffic violations. And four states will suspend it for not paying parking tickets. Among the other reasons: school truancy, bouncing a check, not paying college loans, graffiti and littering.“]
How this happened is a classic example of how politician’s incentives to appear “tough on crime” can affect policy. In the 1980s, Congress passed laws taking away driver’s licenses from men who failed to pay child support and from drug offenders. State lawmakers then joined in on the trend, leading to the situation we see today: hundreds of thousands of Americans across the country with suspended driver’s licenses.
Unfortunately, the policy isn’t even an effective way of encouraging people to pay their fines. As Reason reported:

The Legal Aid Justice Center says these numbers suggest the threat of license suspension doesn’t increase debt collection … Instead it just adds another substantial burden to people already living paycheck to paycheck.“]
In the 1800s, people unable to pay their debts were sent to debtor’s prisons to work off what they owed. Today, thanks to the suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid court debts, people who can’t pay are prisoners in their own homes.