Editorial: Limit license suspensions to dangerous drivers

The Detroit News

What happens if you don't make your child support payments in Michigan? Among other things, the state suspends your driver's license.

Not being able to legally drive makes it tougher for many delinquent parents to keep working. And that works against their ability to catch up on their child support payments.

It's a frustrating circle, and one that adds to the overpopulation of Michigan jails, since state law demands that motorists caught driving on a suspended license must be arrested and locked up.

Some stay there for long stretches because they can't afford to post bond.

More:Task force suggests jail system changes: speed up trials, fewer license suspensions

Being in jail is obviously another impediment to work and meeting parental financial obligations.

Failing to pay child support is one of several offenses that have nothing to do with safe driving that can lead to the suspension of a driver's license in Michigan.

Among the others: Most drug offenses; failure to pay court-imposed fines on time; failure to respond to three or more parking tickets; fuel theft; giving alcohol to a minor two or more times, and parenting time disputes.

Using license suspensions as a catch-all punishment for offenses that have nothing to do with road safety is one of the primary reasons Michigan's jail population has not fallen in recent decades, despite a significant decrease in crime. That's the conclusion of a report from the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pre-trial Incarceration. 

Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, second from right, present a report on jail and pretrial incarceration to House Speaker Lee Chatfield, second from left, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020 at the state Capitol in Lansing.

The task force notes that 358,000 driver's licenses were suspended in 2018 for failure to appear in court and failure to pay fines and fees. Many of the offenders were unaware their licenses had been suspended until they were pulled over by police during an unrelated traffic stop and arrested.

Recommendations from the task force on how to reform the process include:

  • Stop using license suspensions as a penalty for offenses other than those related to safety, including drunken driving, reckless driving and fleeing police.
  • Don't allow license suspensions for failure to comply with a court judgment.
  • Prohibit confiscation of driver's licenses as a condition of pre-trial release except in cases where that penalty would be imposed on conviction.
  • Reclassify some misdemeanors as civil infractions, including non-moving violations, snowmobile and boat offenses that don't involve intoxication, and infractions cited by the Department of Natural Resources.  

These are common-sense reforms that should be embraced by the Legislature.

Jail space should be reserved for those who present a danger to society. Disregarding child support payments, while despicable, does not meet the standard of a public threat.

Stopping the suspension of driver's licenses for offenses that have nothing to do with driving would be a big step toward bringing down the incarceration rate in Michigan, which would save taxpayer's money and reduce the risk of doing more damage to those already struggling to get their lives together.