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Losing the right to drive in December upended Latrice Harry’s life. She’d been pulled over by police six months before, and after failing to pay an initial ticket—she says she got it for not being able to quickly find proof of insurance among her belongings—the debt kept accumulating.
The threat of driver’s-license suspension to compel violators to pay traffic fines has long been viewed as an essential tool. Harry’s home of California is one of 29 states to use it, according to Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior counsel at the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice. But the size of the fines levied has ballooned in recent decades, as lawmakers came to use them as a regular source of revenue for government programs.
In California, increased attention on how this punishment disproportionately affects low-income residents has led lawmakers there to consider mitigating penalties, starting with a bill now working its way through the state Senate. Indeed, when it comes to low-income Californians, revoking licenses would seem to do more to keep them in a cycle of poverty than encourage them to pay debts they cannot afford. Yet lawmakers are finding that disentangling this revenue from the state’s spending is complicated, as the bill’s opponents argue it funds valuable initiatives.