Every year, around 7,000 Massachusetts residents lose their license due to a drug conviction, and only about 2,500 ever get them back. Nationally, more than 200,000 people lose their driver’s license every year because similar state laws, according to an analysis done by The Clemency Report, a nonprofit research organization.
Massachusetts is one of 14 states, where drug convictions unrelated to driving are still punished by driver’s-license suspension. These states are primarily in the Northeast and the South, and are mostly Republican-lead, including Texas, Virginia, and Oklahoma—though some, such as New York and Pennsylvania, are lead by Democrats.
In Massachusetts, this law is likely to change. Earlier this month, a bill to make license suspension discretionary rather than automatic, and to remove the reinstatement fee, was passed by the State’s House of Representatives 150-0. The bill was identical to a bill passed by the Senate this fall, aside from an amendment that would exclude people convicted of drug trafficking, which was tacked on by House Republicans. State legislatures are figuring out how to reconcile differences between the bills. If the differences are resolved, Republican Governor Charlie Baker is expected to sign the bill into law.
This is the second legislative session that the bill will go through. Two years ago it died without much fanfare. Lack of momentum around the bill two years ago was probably due to, “Overall social concerns about maintaining policies that were tough on crime,” said State Representative Liz Malia who sponsored the bill. Now, though, “there is a cultural shift starting to happen,” she said of her fellow legislators’ attitude towards criminal justice. She is hopeful that this bill will move swiftly into law.
Barriers to Reentry
Advocates of the bill argue that license suspensions pose unnecessary hurdles to rebuilding a life after incarceration.
“There are enough challenges for someone getting out of jail in terms of finding employment, getting to community programs, and reuniting with their family, without adding to it not being able to drive a car,” said Rich McCarthy, a spokesman for Hampden County Jail in Western Massachusetts. The sheriff in Hampden County supports the bill, as do many other sheriffs, including the president of the Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association.
In Massachusetts, 80 percent of all workers travel to work in a private vehicle, according to a report by The Prison Policy Institute, a Massachusetts-based criminal-justice think tank. The report notes that beyond making commuting difficult, the driver’s license suspension also makes fulfilling family obligations challenging, such as picking children up from school, as well as traveling to appointments related to addiction recovery.
The report, as well as other advocates of the bill, also argues that the law in its current form provides a loophole to a 2010 reform that restricted access to certain nonviolent drug crimes. Not protected under the reform were license suspensions due to drug convictions. So, in effect, these criminal records are available to potential employers.