Right now in Montana, people are losing their ability to earn a living because they owe fines and fees to courts.
The Motor Vehicle Division suspends driver’s licenses for unpaid court-ordered fines and fees, including fines and fees that are unrelated to public safety violations while driving. As a result, every year, more than 10,000 low-income Montanans have their driver’s licenses suspended.
This policy needs to change, and thanks to legislation from Rep. Casey Knudsen, it soon could. Recently, the Montana finance committee advanced Rep. Knudsen’s House Bill 217. If implemented, this bill would repeal the part of Montana law that requires a person’s driver’s license be suspended for failure to pay court debt.
While it is reasonable to suspend a driver’s license for truly dangerous driving, the status quo of suspending a driver’s license for unrelated offenses does nothing to improve public safety. Instead, it creates a difficult cycle that is nearly impossible for the working poor to escape.
As Ronnie Lampard, Criminal Justice Task Force director at the American Legislative Exchange Council, recently wrote in the Billings Gazette, “stripping individuals of their driver's license makes it more difficult to earn a living, and more difficult to pay off their debt.”
Indeed, when a person does not pay off their court-ordered fines because they cannot afford to pay them, suspending their driver’s license generally leaves them with two options – drive with a suspended license, or find a much closer job.
In Montana, driving without a license is punishable by up to six months in jail, more fines, and an additional suspension of one’s license. Searching for a new job, on the other hand, leaves people with even fewer resources for necessities, let alone court debt.
Unfortunately, this difficult situation results in some Montanans finding themselves behind bars despite posing no threat to the community. In addition to the great deal of harm this scenario inflicts on these individuals and their families, it is also a poor use of tax dollars.
Rather than investing scarce public resources into truly improving community safety, the funds are tied up incarcerating people who should not be in prison in the first place. This increases corrections spending over the long term. Studies have found that even brief jail stays increase the odds of another crime being committed down the road, particularly for low-risk defendants.
If lawmakers need added urgency, the practice of revoking driver’s licenses was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge in Tennessee last year.
Suspending a driver’s license for unpaid court debt makes it more difficult for people to eventually pay what they owe while also making it more likely that they will take the risk of driving without a license, a crime that would worsen their situation and add to their record.
The wide-ranging negative consequences of this policy are driving bipartisan reforms across a number of states, and Montana should start leading the way by passing HB 217.
Grover Norquist is president and founder of Americans for Tax Reform, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit taxpayer advocacy group started at the request of President Ronald Reagan.