Ending driver’s license suspension for drug offenders

A great step on the path to more sensible criminal justice policies

I APPLAUD THE members of the 189th General Court of the Massachusetts House of Representatives for finishing what their colleagues in the Senate started in September by unanimously supporting legislation that repeals the automatic suspension of a driver’s license for convicted drug offenders. While the bill is entitled, “An Act relative to motor vehicle license suspension,” the ramifications of the passage of this bill are so much more than that.

As sheriff of Suffolk County I am tasked with care, custody, and control of the individuals housed at the Suffolk County House of Correction and the Nashua Street Jail. Too many of these individuals are remanded to my care due to drug crimes, and within that category of offenses the majority are for the possession of controlled substances.  Possession is inherently a more minor drug crime – it does not involve sale, manufacture, or distribution. Yet the crime of drug possession carries a major collateral consequence: The automatic suspension of the offender’s driver’s license.

This consequence was not technically a criminal justice sanction; in fact, it represents just one in a long list of the collateral consequences of many criminal convictions that are not enumerated within our criminal code. This consequence technically emanates from the transportation department, but is a driver’s license truly just something we need in order to drive a vehicle? Of course not. Just like you or me, an individual who has been convicted of a drug crime needs his or her driver’s license to accomplish a whole host of activities: cash a check (most notably the paper check received upon release with the money earned working while incarcerated), apply for a job, apply for housing, apply for transitional assistance, provide evidence of identity, travel, and more.

The previous law required the Registry of Motor Vehicles to automatically apply the sanction to individuals convicted of drug offenses and provided the options of suspending the license for up to five years and imposing at least a $500 reinstatement fee. The average sentence length at the House of Correction for males is 9 to 12 months, and for women it is 6 to 9 months. While state-level drug offense sentences are higher and often more serious, at the county level our predominantly possession-related offenses can leave the most serious offender with four years in the community with no right to obtain his or her driver’s license, dramatically curtailing the ability to successfully reintegrate into the community.

In the correctional field, often we are held accountable for is recidivism – whether or not those released from our care come back again within a certain time period.  Paradoxically, we correctional officials have little control over the community reality we release individuals back into. We can work tirelessly with them on community reentry plans, work with them to improve their level of education, work with them to improve their vocational skills and employment prospects, work with them toward recovery from substance use addiction, and even work with them to improve their physical and mental health. But until this landmark vote, we had to release far too many individuals into the community knowing all too well that they would face a monumental barrier in their path to success.

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It is my fervent hope that the passage of this bill by the House and the Senate is the first momentous step taken in a set of broad, sweeping changes to our system of criminal justice sanctions and their collateral consequences. We as a Commonwealth can no longer afford to cripple those convicted of crimes with collateral sanctions impeding successful community reintegration. Our fellow citizens who have served the criminal justice sanctions imposed upon them must not be punished further through a system of silent sanctions barring full civic participation. We can and must do better as a Commonwealth, and with this vote the House of Representatives took a huge step toward knocking down barriers to success.

Steven W. Tompkins is sheriff of Suffolk County and president of the Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association.