When Tough on Drugs Laws Go Terribly Wrong

The way Jerrale Gayle sees it, you don’t need a drivers license to sell marijuana. But to work, pay your bills and provide for your family, a driver’s license is an absolute must. And for this recent father of a newborn, this is the reality he awakens to every day living in rural Virginia without a driver’s license.

Gayle is a convicted criminal. He spent a number of years behind bars for narcotic violations. The 30-year-old is quick to tell you he has “not always been a perfect person.” But for the past few years, Jerrale has been trying to put his life back together. That’s a tough task without the legal means to drive to and from work.

Gayle is just one of the hundreds of thousands of former felons who find themselves stymied by some of the toughest laws on the books against drug offenders.

Jerrale has been trying to put his life back together. That’s a tough task without the legal means to drive to and from work.

Following a dramatic spike in violence, largely as a result of the crack-cocaine epidemic that consumed many cities in the 1990s, a bipartisan coalition emerged in state capitols and in Congress to enact tough anti-drug laws. Among the better known of these laws include Congress’ 100 to 1 sentencing disparity for the trafficking or possession of crack cocaine compared with powder cocaine.

At the same time, Congress also enacted a measure that coerced states to automatically suspend the driver’s license of anyone convicted of a drug offense or risk losing critical highway funding. Many states have since reversed course —but not all. Twelve states and the District of Columbia continue enforcing these laws.

According to Joshua Aiken, a researcher at the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit supportive of reducing mass criminalization, approximately 191,000 driver’s licenses are suspended every year for non-driving drug offenses.

States counter that former convicts can get right with the law by paying license reinstatement fees that can range anywhere from $20 in Iowa to $275 in Alabama. While every state differs, most impose this fee for every drug violation, which can quickly add up to a hefty sum of money especially for someone who has no savings or income.

States counter that former convicts can get right with the law by paying license reinstatement fees that can range anywhere from $20 in Iowa to $275 in Alabama.

Not surprisingly, these measures disproportionately affect lower-income and minorities the hardest, according a Prison Policy Initiative study detailing the effects of these state laws.

Aiken, the study’s author, sums up the vicious cycle: “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.”

Jerrale Gayle has experienced this firsthand. Besides seeing other convicts like him struggle to make ends meet, he has also seen the formerly incarcerated return to crime only to find themselves right back where they started in prison.

“A couple of guys that I know tried to put the shoe on the right foot and walk right, but ended up back in the system,” says Gayle with palpable frustration in his voice.

“I’m trying to do right for him,” Gayle said. “He has to get back and forth for doctor’s appointments and I need to make sure he has food and diapers. It’s hard to do all of that without a license.”

It’s a frustration that turns into desperation when thinking about his responsibilities as a father. “I’m trying to do right for him,” Gayle said. “He has to get back and forth for doctor’s appointments and I need to make sure he has food and diapers. It’s hard to do all of that without a license.”

Gayle is also working with Drive to Work, an organization that helps the formerly incarcerated restore their driving privileges. Thanks to their efforts, Gayle is hopeful that he will be able to receive at least a restricted driver’s license.

Additionally, Gayle is hopeful that Virginia lawmakers will reverse this injustice during the next legislative session. On his side are the current governor and a number of state lawmakers who are pushing substantive measures that would ease the financial burden imposed on ex-offenders to have their licenses reinstated.

Still, Gayle knows that the political task won’t be easy. But he remains determined to avoid going back to prison.

“In the past six years I have not been in any trouble with the law,” he said. “I have avoided the streets and have totally turned my life around. But without a license, I am still struggling.”

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