Washington state’s debt-based driver’s license suspension laws mirror racist legal system

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Washington state’s debt-based driver’s license suspension laws mirror racist legal system

SB 5226 would reform driver’s license suspension policies that disproportionately harm Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and people of color

By - March 5, 2021

This blog post is the third in a series on debt-based driver’s license suspensions.

Every year, thousands of Washingtonians who cannot pay a minor traffic citation for a moving violation are adversely impacted by Washington state’s unjust debt-based driver’s license suspension laws. The “Driving While License Suspended – Third Degree,” or DWLS3, law endangers public safety and needlessly entraps struggling Washingtonians in an endless cycle of debt and economic hardship. And it’s Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) who are disproportionately charged and fined at higher rates in these cases compared to whites in the state.

The inherently racist and classist nature of the criminal legal system amplifies the damaging effects of our debt-based driver’s license suspension laws. Under Washington state’s current laws:

  • Racial and ethnic minority groups are cited more often for traffic citations and are charged with more serious offenses.
  • Black, Indigenous, and Hispanic/Latinx groups are over-represented as defendants that owe fines and fees, with Hispanic/Latinx defendants receiving the highest financial penalties compared to white defendants receiving the same charge.[1]
  • DWLS3 is the most charged crime in Washington and has an outsized impact on many Washingtonians of color, especially Black, Hispanic, and American Indians (see chart below). Black Washingtonians are especially targeted and harmed by these policies: while they are just 4% of the driving age population, they represent 11% of defendants in DWLS3 cases. These racial disparities in traffic citations bring more detrimental consequences to BIPOC, particularly for those who cannot afford to pay for a traffic citation or additional fines and fees.

Click to enlarge image

Chart showing the share of the driving population and the share of DWLS3 charges by race/ethnicity in Washington state in 2020

Legislators can start to rectify Washington’s fines and fees system with SB 5226

While much needs to be done to address the many injustices that BIPOC communities in Washington state face on a daily basis, legislators can help chart a better course by enacting Senate Bill 5226, which would end debt-based driver’s license suspensions. SB 5226 takes steps towards decriminalizing minor traffic violations and provides immediate economic and legal gains to Washingtonians.

However, the debt collection industry, which profits from exorbitant interest rates and fees applied to late payments on traffic citations, is pulling out all the stops to dramatically weaken the measure and maintain the unjust status quo. Lawmakers should reject those efforts and work quickly to enact SB 5226 in the form that was approved by Senate Committee on Law & Justice in February 2021. Doing so would move Washington state closer to racial justice.

[1] Alexes Harris and Tyler Smith, Washington State from the Multi-State Study of Monetary Sanctions, 2019.

*Wherever possible, data are disaggregated to provide a preliminary understanding of disparities by race, ethnicity, and nativity. Data are not always available for all races and ethnicities, which we recognize is problematic given our country’s long history of cultural erasure. As a result of all of this, the statistics presented in this blogpost tell a limited story. And in some cases, the numbers don’t reflect—and may even misrepresent—people’s lived experiences. Washington state population data used here is from the Washington State Budget & Policy Center’s analysis of the 2019 American Community Survey Data from IPUMS USA, University of Minnesota, www.ipums.org.

About Evan Walker, Policy Analyst