Kansas Appleseed is a nonprofit policy organization that, among its other focus areas, advocates for more just laws for all Kansans. In their 2020 policy brief, they spotlighted the number of driver’s licenses that are suspended due to unpaid tickets, court costs or fines in this state. According to their data, which was acquired through an open records request to the Department of Revenue, Kansas had the fifth highest suspension rate in the country in 2018.
Nationwide, about 40% of license suspensions are for unpaid tickets, child support or drug offenses. That alone is eyebrow raising. But when compared to the 71% of all suspensions in Kansas imposed for unpaid fees, fines or court costs, it’s clear Kansas needs to rethink its policy.
In Barton County, in 2019, there were 1,678 suspended licenses. That’s out of a population of 20,361 over the age of 18. That’s about 8.2% of adults not being able to drive due to a suspended license. Of these, 252 were because of unpaid fines and fees. It may not sound like many compared to the entire population, but think of the disruption in the lives of family members and the community that resulted from each of these suspensions. What would any of us do in this situation?
Two Barton County cities had an above-average number of suspensions by percentage of population: Great Bend, with 1,448 (about 12.4% of the adult population), and Pawnee Rock, with 25 (about 14.3% of the adult population). The rest of the communities in the county hovered between 4% and 6%, and in rural Barton County, that percentage doesn’t even register.
In this state, with minimal public transportation available and long distances for many to travel from home to work, the grocery store, or even a doctor’s appointment, the ability to drive is critical for everyday living.
A person of even modest means can choose to pay a traffic ticket rather than losing their license, and grouse about the injustice to their friends and family in comfort and safety. But for those without extra cash, with rent due and little to no food in the house, what to do? No one should have to choose between paying a fine or losing their ability to earn a living and possibly losing their home.
If license suspensions resulted in a positive cash flow, perhaps it would be more difficult to question the policy. But, according to the Appleseed brief, it actually costs taxpayers to adhere to these policies. “States waste an average of nine hours of Police and Court time for every suspended license case. Research indicates approximately 75% of all suspended drivers continue to drive.”
It also diminishes the pool of possible applicants for some jobs. In a normal year, that’s something our rural communities can do without.
A bill to change the state’s policy concerning license suspensions for unpaid fines was introduced in January, but died in committee in May. We anticipate a reintroduction in the coming session. Alternatives could include restricting licenses, as well as reducing fees and fines to amounts that are more affordable.
People make mistakes, like failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign, failing to signal, or even running a red light. These are misdemeanors, and should be treated as such. Taking away a person’s means to earn is no solution; it just makes the problem worse.
— Veronica Coons