Why Restoring Driving Rights to Former Inmates Matters

Massachusetts is on the verge of removing a roadblock for thousands of former inmates who had their licenses automatically suspended after being released.

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.  (Shutterstock)

Steven Denson put his life of drugs—both selling and using—behind him after his most recent stint in prison, a four-year bid for selling crack cocaine more than a decade ago. During the years immediately following his release, he would ride his motorized scooter from his home to a work center most days. From there he would be bused to whatever local factory needed workers that day.

About four years after his 2001 release, though, he was arrested while riding his scooter around Worcester, the Central Massachusetts city where he lived.

“They said I was doing 35, but the scooter doesn't even go that fast. I don't know if it was racial profiling or what,” Denson, who is black, said.

The offense that escalated the stop from a ticket to an arrest wasn’t speeding, it was operating a motor vehicle under a suspended license. Denson, like everyone else convicted of a drug-related crime in Massachusetts, had his driver’s license automatically suspended after his release from prison. Suspensions range from six months to five years; his was suspended for five years. (In this case, he says he was under the false impression that he didn’t need a license for a scooter.)

He paid the $100 fine for driving without a license. And after the five-year probation, he paid a $500 fee to have a driver’s license issued, another requirement for anyone in the state with a drug conviction. Paying these fines was not an easy task when he was making $7 an hour.

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.

“It has created a backdoor way to get around employer discrimination reform in Massachusetts,” said Bernadette Rabuy of Prison Policy Institute.

While there was no vocal opposition to the bill by legislators, there was some reported opposition among business owners who want to check applicants’ drug conviction histories. “I understand that people make mistakes and need to move on,” Jon B. Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts told The Boston Globe this fall. “But you can’t totally erase history.”

A Relic of The War On Drugs

The origins of these laws date back to 1991, the height of the national war on drugs. At this time, a federal law was passed under President George H.W. Bush mandating that states impose driver's-license suspensions for anyone convicted of a drug-related crime. If any state declined to do so, a portion of its federal highway funds would be withheld. Massachusetts was ahead of the feds on this policy though, where it has been on the books since 1989. During that era, “policies were passed where people who were incarcerated were an afterthought,” said Rabuy.

Eventually, states were allowed to formally opt out of the federal law’s requirements. To date, 36 states have done so. In Ohio, a similar bill to the one in Massachusetts is up for debate this session.

Denson did, finally, get his license. With his increased mobility, he said, his career opportunities were widened. For fifteen years he worked at an addiction treatment center as a unit coordinator, providing logistical support to nurses and patients. “I wanted to do better things for my life,” he said. “That was my way of giving back.” Through that work he was introduced to the nonprofit organization where he now works as a community organizer, Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement.

Denson and his colleagues were very active in advocating for the bill to end driver's-license suspension, making several trips to the state house to tell their stories to lawmakers. He is hopeful that the bill will soon become law, and is celebrating the victory.

“This gives people the opportunity to move on with their lives,” he said.