License suspensions disproportionately hurt marginalized

Drivers in New York state were issued more than 1 million license suspensions in 2017, and about two-thirds of them were for “traffic debt” – failure to pay a traffic ticket or to appear in traffic court – while less than 10% were for driving infractions.

Researchers from the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy combined suspension records from the state Department of Motor Vehicles with drivers’ ZIP code data from the Census and found that drivers in communities that had large Black, Hispanic and socioeconomically disadvantaged populations were disproportionately impacted by both nonpayment and noncompliance suspensions.

They also used statistical modeling to predict the effect of eliminating such license suspensions, and determined that racial and economic disparity could be significantly reduced.

“What we found is that not only are some communities much more likely to be impacted by this sanction (license suspension), which can have compounding consequences for their lives, but more expansive reform options would do more to reduce inequality,” said Maureen Waller, professor of public policy and sociology in the Brooks School.

Waller is co-author of “Predation and the Disproportionate Risk of Driver’s License Suspensions in Economically and Racially Marginalized Communities,” which published April 29 in Socius, a journal of the American Sociological Association.

Other co-authors are Peter Rich, assistant professor of sociology and public policy in the Brooks School; and Nathan Robbins, Ph.D. ’23, now a postdoctoral research associate at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, in Rostock, Germany.

This published research is the first to come out of a project Waller joined last year, the ABF/JPB Foundation Access to Justice Scholars Program, that supports scholars generating research on access to civil justice that can be translated into practice. Waller’s focus: people’s lived experiences with having a suspended license, and potential reforms in New York to end “debt-based” suspensions.

One reform has already been enacted: In 2020, the New York Driver’s License Suspension Reform Act (DLSRA) was passed into law, removing suspension of one’s license as punishment for failure to pay traffic fines. But the law, which took effect in mid-2021, represented a compromise as it did not cover suspensions for failure to appear in traffic court, which passed the Legislature but was not approved by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Many times, Waller said, one driver is sanctioned for both the failure to pay a ticket and to appear in court, and these suspensions are driven by the same underlying factors. “What we’re finding is that nonpayment and noncompliance suspensions not only affect the same communities, they affect the same people,” she said.

The researchers obtained the data for this study from the Center for Law and Economic Justice, which submitted a Freedom of Information Law request to the state DMV. The dataset contained information on nearly 1.15 million total suspension events in 2017, involving 565,893 individuals, more than 40% of whom received multiple suspensions.

For purposes of analysis, the research team coded reasons for suspensions – of which the DMV listed 230 – into seven categories: driving safety infractions; failure to pay traffic tickets; failure to pay driver responsibility assessment fees (levied if a driver is convicted of certain traffic offenses in NYS, or accumulates six or more points on their driving record within 18 months); failure to appear in traffic court; failure to comply with New York State/DMV regulations; failure to pay child support; and other reasons.

Out of all suspensions in 2017, only 6% were for driving infractions; more than 84% were for nonpayment or noncompliance issues. The two most common reasons for suspension were for failure to appear in traffic court or answer a summons (42.3%) and failure to pay a traffic ticket (22.4%).

The researchers then ran prediction models – a “thought experiment,” Rich said – to determine how a community might be affected by expanding suspension reform. The group found that dropping license suspension for unpaid traffic tickets, failure to pay a driver responsibility assessment fee, and for failure to appear in court have the largest estimated impact in reducing inequality.

“It was really a simple data exercise,” Rich said, “but I think it really reveals the vast amount of inequality in the decision to release suspensions for failure to pay fines but not for failure to appear in traffic court. That was a really big ‘aha!’ moment for us.”

Further research will examine the effect of the DLSRA on suspension disparity, as well as provide legislatures across the country with information that could lead to reforms that promote equity.

“We’re in this window of time when there’s strong momentum for reform,” Waller said. “So we’re just hoping our work can speak to this larger discussion that’s going on, and provide information about which reform options would have the biggest impact on reducing inequality.”

Support for this research came from the ABF/JPB Foundation Access to Justice Scholars Program, the David M. Einhorn Center for Community Engagement, the Cornell Center for Social Sciences, the Cornell Population Center and the Cornell Center for Health Equity.

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Damien Sharp