A driver’s license suspension is often triggered by a minor issue, such as an unpaid traffic ticket, but it can have serious consequences. Maureen Waller will study racial and economic disparities in driver’s license suspensions.

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Maureen Waller will study driver’s license suspensions as an Access to Justice Scholar

Maureen Waller, a professor in the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy and the Department of Sociology, will study racial and economic disparities in driver’s license suspensions through her selection as Access to Justice Scholar by the American Bar Foundation (ABF), in partnership with the JPB Foundation.

The six U.S. faculty members selected for the program are charged with generating impactful research on access to civil justice and translating this research into practice. “The six scholars’ projects will produce both discoveries to inform social scientific understandings of access to civil justice and knowledge to inform real-world policy and reduce poverty and inequality in the United States and beyond,” ABF said in the announcement of Waller’s selection.

Waller will examine people’s lived experiences with having a suspended license as well as recent and potential reforms in New York to end “debt-based” suspensions.  

“Although a driver’s license suspension is often triggered by a minor issue, such as an unpaid traffic ticket, it can have serious consequences and lead to criminal legal system involvement for people who are financially unable to pay a fine or comply with other regulations,” Waller said. “This raises important access to justice concerns if groups with limited resources are not only more likely to have their licenses suspended but also less able to regain their driving privileges.”

License suspensions are common with one estimate suggesting 7% of drivers have a suspended license and approximately 11 million U.S. drivers are under suspension due to unpaid fines alone.

As part of the project, Waller will interview drivers in New York to understand how having a suspended license affects their lives and the barriers to clearing a suspension without legal assistance. She will work with Peter Rich and Nathan Robbins to examine geo-coded DMV records on all driver’s license suspensions in New York to determine which communities are most impacted by suspensions and whether recent state reforms have been effective. Rich is an assistant professor in the Brooks School and the Department of Sociology. Robbins is a Brooks School PhD student. Preliminary research for this study was supported by the Einhorn Center Engaged Scholar Prize and the Cornell Center for Social Sciences. 

Waller also plans to collaborate with Michaela Rossettie Azemi, Esq., Director of Pro-Bono Services and Externships at Cornell Law School, to develop legal resources for suspended drivers because their cases often fall outside the scope of indigent public defense and free civil legal aid.

“We hope this study will inform federal and state policy efforts during a window of time where there is strong momentum for reform and provide actionable evidence to address this important access to justice concern which contributes to racial and economic inequality,” Waller said.

Waller’s research has drawn on hundreds of qualitative interviews, national surveys and policy data to examine several cross-cutting issues related to poverty and inequality, family and U.S. social policy. A central strand of this research documents the experiences of economically and racially marginalized groups at the intersection of the welfare, child support, family court, and criminal-legal systems. Waller’s work also prioritizes policy and community engagement, and she has presented her work to many community groups, state and federal governmental agencies, and other policy audiences.

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