How the Government is Making it Harder for Ex Offenders to Find Work

The criminal justice system is setting up the formerly incarcerated to fail.

In more than a dozen states and jurisdictions, including Washington, D.C., there are laws on the books that call for the automatic suspension of driver’s licenses for anyone convicted of a drug offense unrelated to driving. The laws — vestiges of the “war on crime” of the early 1990s — make it difficult for ex-offenders to seek meaningful employment, and in some cases find housing.

New research by the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-partisan research institution that calls for reduced mass criminalization, pegs the number of former offenders affected at around 191,000 nationwide. Among the states impacted most by the outdated laws include Virginia, with more than 38,000, Michigan, with more than 26,000, and Florida, with more than 24,000.

Threatened with the loss of federal highway funding, several states approved punitive measures for drug offenders as a way of staying in the good graces of a Congress bent on showing Americans the feds were tough on crime.

Eventually, many states reconsidered the prevailing wisdom that these laws would reduce drug trafficking and repealed them altogether. But as the research from the Prison Policy Initiative makes clear, there are still a number of states that continue to enforce these needlessly punitive laws that sometimes prevent ex-offenders from getting work. The problem is especially acute for African-American and Latino ex-offenders.

The problem is especially acute for African-American and Latino ex-offenders.

Joshua Aiken, the author of the study writes:

“By making employment opportunities harder to access, driver’s license suspensions produce economic instability. Altogether, a suspended driver’s license translates to less social mobility: people living in poor communities stay poor.”

Lest one thinks that public transportation is a viable alternative to a motor vehicle, a report by the Brookings Institution found that of the 25 least accessible metro areas, many are located in the suspending states.

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Besides inhibiting one’s ability to find work, the Prison Policy Initiative also concluded that finding housing can prove difficult without a valid driver’s license. Many landlords require a driver’s license as a form of identification when considering a rental application.

Finally, there is the financial burden that is imposed by all states that enforce the automatic suspension of driver’s licenses: a reinstatement fee.

The exact amount varies from state to state, but in some cases the amount can reach $275, as is the case in the state of Alabama. As the study makes clear, $275 is a significant amount of money for someone that has just reentered the workforce and likely earning minimum wage.

As the study makes clear, $275 is a significant amount of money for someone that has just reentered the workforce and likely earning minimum wage.

In response, the Prison Policy Initiative recommends amending federal law to remove incentives that encourage states to suspend driver’s licenses for drug convictions. The group also calls on states to repeal their license-suspension laws.

The entire report can be found here.

Israel Ortega is a Senior Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter: @IzzyOrtega.