Breaking the Cycle of Debt and Suspended Licenses

Joe Herbin, driving worry-free and working as a forklift operator at Frito-Lay.

Joe Herbin, driving legally and working as a forklift operator at Frito-Lay.

by James A. Bacon

Joe Herbin has always been a hard worker. When he was 15 years old, he’d accumulated the $1,200 it took to buy an old Cadillac. The fact that he didn’t have a driver’s license — or was too young even to get one — wasn’t a deterrent. He installed a bad-ass sound system and drove around town like the king of the world for about a week, then had an accident in a gas station. The policeman gave him tickets for about four different violations — the first of many to come.

Herbin kept driving, though, and he kept racking up tickets in and around the City of Richmond, often while driving to or from work at Wal-Mart, Target or his cousin’s music CD shop. He prayed every day that he wouldn’t get stopped and slapped with another fine, penalty or gig in jail. He was around 22 years old when he was driving his pregnant girl friend to the hospital, when he got stopped again. This time someone finally told him about the Drive to Work program, a not-for-profit group dedicated to helping people with suspended licenses restore their driving privileges so they can function as productive members of society.

When Drive to Work staff tallied up all the fines, penalties and back interest, they found that Herbin owed a total of $7,500 to courts in five jurisdictions, each with its own set of procedures for collecting the money. By his own admission, Herbin is a “careless person,” lacking the temperament to make payments to so many court clerks on a regular basis. Drive to Work created a plan whereby he made a single monthly payment of $357 to the non-profit, and staff made sure each court clerk received the money on time. Drive to Work also negotiated a deal allowing Herbin to receive a restricted driver’s license allowing him to drive between home and work, home and church, and home and daycare.

Today, Herbin has worked his fines down to under $1,000 and his monthly payments to less than $50. He now drives a forklift for Frito-Lay making $17 an hour, as well as a part-time job for extra cash, and he lives in a committed relationship with the mother of his three children.

Herbin’s story is surprisingly common in Virginia. A recent study conducted of 606 of Drive to Work’s clients found that fines, penalties and interest ranged as high as $33,000, with average debt about $4,800. Clients owned money to an average of 3.6 different courts.

At an awards and recognition banquet Monday, Drive to Work President O. Randolph Rollins described the predicament of another client. Of the $8,000 in obligations he’d amassed, 35% consisted of unpaid fines, 45% of court penalties relating to hearing his case, and 20% interest.

The system creates a vicious cycle for poor and working class people who build up fines they cannot hope to repay, Rollins said. Many continue driving because they can’t get to work any other way, lose their license and lose their jobs. The situation is a Catch 22: Without work, they have no hope of generating earnings to repay the fines. Indeed, the inability to repay fines accounts for 37% of all suspended licenses in Virginia, Rollins said  — affecting nearly 200,000 people across the state.

Recognition of the need to restore drivers licenses became a political issue during the McDonnell administration and with bipartisan support has continued during the McAuliffe administration. The Department of Corrections has implemented a program to help felons prepare while still in prison to get their licenses when they re-enter society. And Del. Manoli Loupassi, R-Richmond, submitted a bill in the 2015 session to study the use of drivers license suspensions as a collection method for unpaid court costs. Although that bill failed because of a technicality, said Rollins, there strong support for passing it next year.

The initiative to restore driving privileges is part of a larger movement to reintegrate felons into society upon their release. The days of giving an offender $20 and bus ticket home are long over. Virginia has one of the best track records in the country for recidivism, said Harold W. Clark, director of the Department of Corrections. Second only to the state of Oklahoma, the recidivism rate is just under 23%. The rate ranges as high as 60% in other states.

While the biggest risk factors for recidivism include antisocial personality, antisocial associations and dysfunctional family, the ability to find employment is one of the “top eight,” Clark said. “Not having a driver’s license is a serious problem. People without driving privileges are effectively excluded from many jobs.”

Many offenders don’t know why their license was suspended or how to get it back, said Clark. A program like Drive to Work helps them navigate the bureaucratic maze, create plans for repaying fines and get offenders a license, even if just a restricted one, that allows them to seek employment.

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9 responses to “Breaking the Cycle of Debt and Suspended Licenses

  1. Sounds like the old logic of “debtors prison” — take away the means to work in order to ensure the payment of debts. Don’t we ever learn?

  2. Mr. Herbin has made lots of mistakes and operates with many bad habits. But he has the desire to make things right. Inside he has the makings of a good, responsible and contributing member of society. What he needed was some help to transfer his inner desires that produce better behavior. The nonprofit was there to help Herbin. As a society, we need to support those programs that work.

  3. Agree. There needs to be consequences for non-violent criminal behaviors but the one we use seem to:

    1. damage/destroy the means to be productive and pay for one’s own needs and

    2. impose on society – the entitlement costs and other costs once the wrong-doer has been rendered much less employable and incentivized towards illegal activities to make money.

    I’m not advocating no penalties… or even “soft” ones. I think there needs to be real consequences for the offenders but we ought not be shooting our own selves in the foot.

    • I’d like to see more overnight/weekend lockups for first-time offenders convicted of nonviolent and non-robbery/burglary/car theft, etc. crimes when they have a day job. Maybe things could also work for nighttime employment.

      For people who have demonstrated the ability to work with the correctional system, rather than against it, I think they should be evaluated for possible house arrest with the ability to go to work.

      But we must still not pretend all convicts are capable of functioning within loose confines or that everyone is redeemable. There are lots of people who need to be locked up for a very long time.
      Additionally, I liked to see reconsideration of a modified Project Exile that was tried in Richmond to get after criminals with illegal firearms back in the 1990s. Reducing the number of these weapons on the streets would likely make a difference in making communities safer.

      The public also needs to be educated about the market for illegal weapons. I went to a meeting last night where otherwise intelligent people were wailing about felons going into a registered gun shop and successfully buying firearms.

  4. I have real mixed feelings about this situation. I don’t like seeing anyone trapped in a bureaucratic cycle of fines and penalties, but how can I feel sympathy for someone who saves money to buy a car but doesn’t bother to get a license to drive? It doesn’t always start that way, of course, but this is perhaps not the most sympathetic story.

    And as for not being able to get to work without a car, the median distance to a Walmart in the US is 4.2 miles, (5.0 for Target) and it’s go to be much less in reasonably populated areas, so it’s eminently bikable if not walkable. SO part of the solution in my one track mind is making biking a more viable option, with better lanes, paths, trails, sharrows, whatever, and getting people to realize that it’s real transportation.
    Here’s my cite for the distances I quoted:
    https://www.minneapolisfed.org/publications/fedgazette/thomas-j-holmes-on-walmarts-location-strategy

    • Tom, I don’t think anyone is “feeling sorry” for people who rack up big fines and penalties. Nobody’s suggesting that we should let them off the hook. The whole point of this program is to help these people organize their affairs so that they can *pay* the fines and start driving legally again.

      As for bicycles being a transportation alternative to cars, you’re absolutely right. Bicycling might not work for someone who has to commute 20 miles to work, but it certainly could work for someone who has to commute 5 miles. There was a guy who worked at my dry cleaners who rode the bus 90% of the way and traveled the final 10% on a bike. There are lots of alternatives, and you and Champe Burnley should encourage the Drive-to-Work people to think outside the box!

  5. Did anyone else catch this amazing comment in the essay: “Many offenders don’t know WHY their license was suspended…”? (Capitalization, mine).

    You can’t be serious, Mr. Clark.

  6. There is no question in my mind with regard to offenders who have committed violent acts – when they cross that line – we have to act.

    But if someone has committed a non-violent act – we need to think about costs that actually come back on us… direct, secondary and cumulative.

    Perhaps that should be a required calculation in determining punishment, i.e. how much will it cost taxpayers to incarcerate?

    If it came out to cost 50,000 a year in total costs to incarcerate Mr. Herbin – would we still choose that path?

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