When Roderick House looks around him at the ex-offenders in Jacksonville’s Operation New Hope he calls friends, he can count the number legally able to drive on one hand – perhaps on one finger.
He was once one of them, having had his driver’s license suspended for nonpayment of child support and a long-ago traffic ticket.
Luckily for House, a brother in Washington, D.C., was willing to pay the $502 the state demanded to reinstate his driver’s license. Without that help, he would have never been able to pay such a fee after he was released from prison earlier this year.
“I don’t know where the money would have come from,” says House. “And a lot of times having a license is key to getting a job. It was a very difficult situation.”
The story of House is all too familiar to too many in this community.
The state’s aggressiveness in taking away an individual’s driver’s license for a wide variety of infractions – many totally unrelated to driving – creates destructive barriers that can be insurmountable for many.
Especially the poor and already disenfranchised – ex-offenders or not.
Kevin Gay, chief executive officer of Operation New Hope for ex-offenders, sees it all too often.
The loss of a driver’s license can lead to the loss of a job or the ability to get employment. The absence of a job can lead to an inability to pay debts or living expenses.
If people have no jobs, they can’t pay the fees associated with getting their license back.
Eventually the simple loss of a license can lead to the courts. And an introduction to the criminal justice system can result in incarceration as one of the consequences.
“Most logical people know this is insane,” Gay says. “It’s insurmountable unless you have help.”
Consequences of suspension
Yet despite the toll license suspension takes on individuals, the state continues to use it as a penalty for a long list of violations.
These infractions range from creating graffiti to passing worthless checks.
Public Defender Charlie Cofer often sees the suspension of a driver’s license as the first step in a person’s downward spiral. In fact, he says, license suspensions are used almost indiscriminately statewide as penalties for infractions regardless of whether they have anything to do with driving.
“The legislature figured out that a driver’s license is so valuable to people that it has attached its suspension to many unrelated things,” Cofer says. “In the real world, (losing a license) has a snowballing effect.”
Today some 650,000 Floridians have lost their licenses.
Nearly half of the people whose licenses are suspended then lose their jobs and half of those will not be able to find another job.
That’s why two-thirds to three-quarters of Floridians with suspended licenses continue to drive despite the fact that if they get pulled over they could go to jail for driving on a suspended license.
To them, the possible future threat of incarceration matters less than the present need to feed a family or pay bills.
California Gov. Jerry Brown calls this dilemma “a hellhole of desperation.”
Even those at the very pinnacle of Florida’s judicial system know the way the state uses license suspensions has gotten out of hand.
“Florida loves to suspend driver’s licenses,” Florida Chief Justice Jorge Labarga was quoted as saying in The Guardian. “If you spit on the street you lose your license.”
Time to lessen the burden
A bill that would have put a stop to much of the license-suspension craziness died in the Florida Legislature during its last session.
It would have decreased the types of offenses that can result in license suspension and give courts leeway to deal more humanely with people who might not have the ability to pay the fines a suspension incurs.
The legislation never made it to the floor of the legislature.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, the Republican from St. Petersburg who introduced last session’s bill, is drafting another and hopes to make suspensions penalties for mainly driving-related crimes.
“We need to focus only on suspending the licenses of people who we’re actually afraid of driving,” he says.
In Northeast Florida there may be other help on the horizon as well.
Cofer and State Attorney Melissa Nelson have already begun talks on how to create a mechanism that would allow for the re-instatement of driver’s licenses.
Let’s hope remedies at both the local and state levels can be enacted this year to correct this problem.
Too many people – often those who can least afford it – have already been hurt.