Over the years, the state General Assembly has mandated suspensions for a host of crimes, including drug possession and non-payment of fines and court costs for all convictions.
It’s a strong punishment.
It’s also “a catch-22,” says noted Richmond defense attorney Steve Benjamin. “We say to people, you’ve been convicted . . . now go out and become a productive citizen, get a job, pay off your fines, pay off those court costs and, by the way, your license is suspended. Good luck.”
Steven Huffman of Hanover County served a little more than three years on a felony marijuana charge. Long after his return to society, he still can’t drive, even though he has a good job and a nice car he inherited while in prison - when his father was killed by an out-of-control driver in the Fredericksburg area .
“I’ve paid my fines, I’ve paid my dues, I’ve done my time,” he said. “What does a grown man got to do to drive in this world?”
John Baumann hears that frustration a lot. He’s the executive director of Offender Aid and Restoration of Richmond, a non-profit that helps former inmates and others convicted of crimes return to society.
“You put them in a position where they owe so much in court costs and fines and fees that they have to pay in order to get a license so they can work,” Baumann said. “Then it really is this vicious cycle, when you make it impossible for them to dig out of this hole.”
The whole idea of our corrections system is to correct bad behavior. Punishment, yes, but also a system to get these offenders on the right path, so they’re contributing to society, not preying upon it.
“It’s overwhelming,” Huffman said. “Like to the point where it’s like, can I just leave the country. Germany will give me a license . . . “
“It’s crazy,” Benjamin said. “It makes sense to suspend a person’s license because of a violation of the traffic laws. It’s a consequence directly related to violating motor vehicle laws. And it’s a safety measure – somebody can’t drive safely, then they probably ought to have a time out.
But suspending a license just as punishment for an unrelated criminal offense just doesn’t make sense. It’s counterproductive to the whole idea of a person re-entering society as a productive, responsible, adult citizen.”
Here’s the statute for suspension because of fines or court costs. There are others: https://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?000+cod+46.2-395
Yes, it’s a privilege to drive in this state. Yes, it really hurts those who can’t drive, along with those who have to try to help them get back and forth to work, pick up their children, worship, go to counseling or drug treatment, especially in huge chunks of the state, where there is no public transportation.
So, let’s say you don’t care about those who make mistakes. Let ‘em walk, right?
The problem is we pay when they mess up. We pay for their jail time, their medical treatment while they’re locked down. We pay for their attorneys and care for their children. We pay when they rob us and steal from us and, sometimes, kill us, in part because they couldn’t get out of an emotional and financial hole.
It benefits all of us if we can correct them, help them play by the rules, work, pay taxes, raise their own children.
Can we just stop making it so hard to do right and so easy to crash and burn?
That’s my take, please leave yours here. And thanks for listening.