HARRISBURG, Pa. – Pennsylvania should join the majority of states in ending the practice of automatically suspending the drivers’ licenses of anyone convicted of a non-driving, drug-related offense, according to a new report.

All but 12 states and the District of Columbia have opted out of the license-suspension provision of a federal law passed in 1991, the Prison Policy Initiative report said. Its author, Joshua Aiken, a policy fellow at the initiative, said there’s no evidence that suspensions deter crime, but they perpetuate the injustices of the so-called “War on Drugs.”

“They’re impacting low-income communities,” he said, “communities who have limited access to public transportation, communities of color who are most impacted by these collateral consequences of drug convictions.”

Last year, almost 20,000 Pennsylvanians had their driver’s license suspended for six months for drug convictions unrelated to driving. Nationally, more than 80 percent of Americans rely on motor vehicles to get to work. In one study, Aiken said, 45 percent of people surveyed said they lost their jobs after their license had been suspended.

“A lot of times, employers, one of the first questions they ask is, ‘Do you have a consistent form of transportation?’ So, these suspensions really hamper people’s opportunities to find and keep jobs,” he said.

Almost 90 percent of those whose licenses were suspended reported a decrease in income.

The 1991 federal law threatens states with loss of federal highway funds if they don’t automatically suspend the licenses of those convicted of drug offenses. However, Aiken said, there’s a relatively easy way out.

“As long as the governor and the state legislators inform the Department of Transportation that they don’t believe in these license suspensions and are no longer going to enforce them,” he said, “they can keep their highway funding.”

License suspensions are used in a variety of other circumstances, from inability to pay fines to missed child-support payments. But Aiken says many states are beginning to roll back those penalties as well.

The report is online at prisonpolicy.org.

by Andrea Sears