Driver’s License Revocations – What Were We Thinking?

On Thursday the State Senate will debate whether to repeal a 1989 law that revokes for a period of one to five years the driver’s license of anyone who is convicted of a drug offense. Any drug offense — even offenses that have nothing to do with cars or driving. The law also imposes a $500 fee to have a license reinstated after the time has been served.

The arguments in favor of repeal seem overwhelming: the law has failed as a deterrent (people with revoked licenses drive anyway because they need to get to their jobs and need to get their kids to school). It busies law enforcement with issuing additional citations to drivers whose licenses have been revoked instead of tending to more important matters. Licensed drivers are saddled with additional insurance costs because more unlicensed (and therefore uninsured) drivers are on the roads. And the law adds to the difficulties that those who have been convicted of drug offenses have in reintegrating — staying out of prison and off drugs. As one of the state’s public defenders described the law to the Globe, “If you were going to develop a public policy to promote recidivism, isn’t this just the way you would do it?”

If anybody could defend the policy wisdom of this law, it would be the state’s District Attorneys. And even they favor repeal.

All of which leads one to wonder, what in the world were we thinking when Massachusetts and other states passed these license revocation statutes and the U.S. Congress chimed in with a law purporting to withhold highway funds from states that did not follow suit? It was after all, only 25 years ago. Some of us were of voting age then. Madonna was around.

To judge from the debate in Congress, the answer seems to be that we were worried about our teenaged kids getting involved with drugs, and we believed that the threat of losing a driver’s license would be sufficient to deter them and to win one battle in the larger war on drugs.

Some excerpts from that debate:

Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), the law’s chief sponsor: “As millions of parents know, driving is very important for the younger set and…57 percent of teenagers in a recent poll said that suspending driver’s licenses would be a ‘very effective’ deterrent.”

Senator Joe Lieberman (D-Conn): “Local police testified that they have begun to target the steady stream of suburban kids coming into the city to buy drugs. Some of their more successful efforts included seizing the arrested drug buyers’ cars, or their fathers’ cars as is often the case.”

Representative Gerald Solomon (R-NY): “I am a father of five children…yearning for that great rite of passage into adulthood, as I said, to get that first driver’s license….[This law] would send a meaningful message to the youth of our country and at the same time when they are most impressionable and most susceptible to peer pressure to try drugs.”

(It seems not to have occurred to these members of Congress that the teenage children of important personages might be the just kind of people on whom police departments might think it advisable to go easy.)

In any case, our state’s experience with drug laws of all kinds over the past quarter century demonstrates that suburban teenagers have not been the demographic most likely to be the object of enforcement. As Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants reported in his State of the Judiciary speech last year, that distinction belongs to members of racial and ethnic minorities.

In fiscal year 2013, 450 defendants were given mandatory minimum sentences on governing drug offenses. In that year…racial and ethnic minorities comprised 32% of all convicted offenders, 55% of all those convicted of non-mandatory drug distribution offenses, and 75% of all those convicted of mandatory drug offenses. I do not suggest that there is intentional discrimination, but the numbers do not lie about the disparate impact.

If someone asks you what is meant by the term “institutional racism,” you could point them to the driver’s license suspension law. Go Senate.

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