House Bill 1795, authored by Rep. Nicole Miller and Sen. Kim David, dramatically reduces driver’s license suspensions for court fines and fees. HB 1795 also significantly increases access to provisional driver’s licenses for the thousands of Oklahomans who have lost their driver’s licenses for non-traffic offenses and who often find themselves caught up in this perverse court funding scheme. Suspension of driving privileges should be reserved for dangerous driving offenses that risk the public’s safety; it should not be used as a tool to collect debt for the judicial system.
Each year, thousands of Oklahomans face driver’s license suspension for failure to pay court fines and fees. As OK Policy has reported previously, tens of thousands of failure to pay arrest warrants are issued each year to the poorest Oklahomans. These failure to pay warrants are particularly concentrated in low-income communities of color, which worsens racial disparities in policing and incarceration.
Driver’s license suspensions are another consequence of this harmful method of funding our courts. Many Oklahomans rely on their driver’s license to help them secure employment, and taking away someone’s driver’s license keeps them from being able to earn money needed to pay court fines and fees. As a result, this only worsens the problems courts were designed to solve and usually this policy doesn’t even help courts collect the debt. Suspending driver’s licenses due to court fines and fees harms public safety, disincentivizes work, and contributes to the separation of families. HB 1795 represents another step towards ending Oklahoma’s destructive reliance on court fines and fees to fund its justice system and other vital public services.
Ending driver’s license suspensions for court fines and fees is a moral imperative
HB 1795 is designed to help people like Andria Collins, a mother from Oklahoma City who lost her job and who experienced nearly a year of homelessness because her license was suspended for unpaid traffic tickets. In 2016, Andria was pulled over because her car tag light was out. This was when she first learned that her license had been suspended. This suspension destroyed Andria’s life. She lost her job as a driver at Hertz, and shortly after that lost her home. Her 12-year-old son has significant medical issues, and losing her ability to drive kept her from taking him to the doctor. All of this happened because of some unpaid traffic tickets from more than a decade earlier. Under current law, she will not be able to get her license reinstated until she pays off this court debt, which she does not foresee happening in the near future.
When you superimpose this set of facts across the poorest rural and urban communities in Oklahoma, the enormous scale of this problem becomes obvious. This problem is what HB 1795 is designed to address. Eighty percent of Oklahoma’s criminal defendants are indigent, — meaning they’re too poor to afford an attorney. Each year, courts assign these defendants millions in court fines and fees, and nearly 70 percent of that debt is unpaid. The data suggests there is a limit to how much the poorest Oklahomans can afford to pay courts. When these already struggling Oklahomans lose their driver’s licenses for failure to pay these fines and fees, the resulting court debt can be catastrophic. In 2018 alone, there were nearly 20,000 driver’s license suspensions for failure to pay warrants in Oklahoma. Failure to appear warrants can also lead to driver’s license suspension, which are often triggered because individuals are scared to show up to court because they fear arrest for failure to pay. If you add driver’s license suspensions for failure to appear, the number of annual suspensions is well over 40,000. That’s 14 license suspensions for every 1,000 driving-age Oklahomans.
By The Numbers: Thousands of Oklahomans received driver’s license suspensions in Oklahoma for Failure to Pay or Failure to Appear in 2018.
When courts take someone’s driver’s license in order to strong arm them into paying fines and fees, the results can be felt throughout the person’s family and in our communities. It becomes harder to keep a good job, harder to pay rent or a mortgage, harder to take care of one’s children, harder to make it to court, and harder to attend court-ordered addiction treatment or counseling. Public safety is not served by creating incentives for people to illegally drive without a license.
HB 1795 is a significant justice reform
Under HB1795 a driver’s license revocation or suspension cannot occur simply for an inability to pay fines and fees. The bill also increases the flexibility of courts and the Department of Public Safety to work with defendants before reaching the point where a person would lose their license. HB 1795 makes a provisional license easier to obtain by removing the requirement to pay all fines and fees before obtaining one. Provisional licenses allow limited driving privileges so individuals can drive to essential places like work, school, day care, church, or court-ordered treatment. HB 1795 significantly reduces the monthly fee for these provisional licenses and lowers the barriers to driving with a provisional license. These common sense reforms would allow struggling families to get back on their feet by ensuring they can get back to work and drop off their kids at school.
HB 1795 would be uniquely important in Oklahoma
In a largely rural state like Oklahoma, access to transportation can be a life and death issue for many people. Public transportation simply isn’t broadly available in rural areas and even portions of our state’s largest cities. The ability to drive to work or to the doctor or the grocery store aren’t just privileges, those things are necessities for families. Criminal justice reforms like HB 1795 are particularly important to rural communities where higher rates of poverty and rapidly growing jail populations have locked so many Oklahomans into a cycle of re-arrest and incarceration that many can never escape. HB 1795 is an important step forward in the fight to reduce Oklahoma’s dependence on court fines and fees. This bill can be the beginning of a broader conversation around the harms caused by these fines and fees. Because Oklahoma has been underfunding its core services for nearly two decades, our public safety agencies have increasingly relied on these complex web of fines and fees in order to operate. This funding method is unreliable and ultimately harms law enforcement, public safety, and Oklahoma families. The good news is the solution to this problem is fairly obvious: Lawmakers should work to properly fund our courts.
- Contact your legislator to urge them to vote yes on HB 1795. Thank lawmakers for supporting criminal justice reform and let them know you would like to see more work done on reducing the state’s reliance on court fines and fees. [Find Your Legislator]
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