A Historic Day in Virginia – Passage of Driver’s License Reinstatement

Today was a very historic day in Virginia! Because of Governor Ralph Northam’s budget amendment and supportive majority votes from the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate, over 620,000 Virginians will get their driver’s license back! This is a huge victory, but it’s just the beginning.  Why, you might ask? Because legislation such as this is quite controversial, which was quite apparent by the arguments on the House and Senate floor today.

Here are the thoughts from REAL LIFE’s Director, Dr. Sarah Scarbrough. And while this post is long, there is so much background and so many details that are necessary to report, so please read to the end!

REAL LIFE, along with our friends of V.O.I.C.E. (Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement) and the McShin Foundation, spent hours at the Virginia Capitol today to hear one bill and advocate on behalf of that bill! This bill is significant and so important that we were there almost all day! Here’s why:

In Virginia, if someone does not pay their court fines, their license is automatically suspended. That equates to over 620,000 individuals. The suspension due to unpaid court fines occurs for any crime…. It does NOT have to be driving related. Now, keep in mind, people with driving related charges, such as DUI, DWI, vehicular manslaughter, and alike, will likely have their license suspended by a judge…. That means, they have no license regardless of if they pay court fines or not. So, contrary to a few legislators’ comments today that were FALSE, these folks are off the table. They are NOT affected by the passage of this because their license was previously suspended by a judge – that is their “punishment” or “consequence.” Their license is gone for however long their job directed, which could be for a very long time.

The passage of this affects everyone else without a license. It affects every single person who spends time behind bars, who then is released, and their license is suspended because while in jail they didn’t pay their fines… which naturally, this is an unrealistic expectation (to pay fines while in jail and not earning an income). The court fines they owe often aren’t a part of their “punishment” – they are basically a tax – a fee to show up in court. It has nothing to do with their “punishment” that the judge dictates.

But, the logic is backwards. If someone doesn’t have a license, their ability to work is severely limited, especially considering almost all of Virginia does not have a system of public transportation. And if they cannot work, how can they make money to pay their fees? It just is not practical. And, as Senator Saslaw so wonderfully articulated on the floor today, “when a person can’t pay, and you take their license, it is costing society a lot more…we pick up a lot more in social costs than just fines.” Think about it – if we take their license, they likely will lose their job. If they lose their job, they likely will file for unemployment, food stamps, and other government funded services. Then, what about medical? No insurance now, so they will utilize the ER for medical services, again costing us.

Think about it logically from the other side, however. If they get their license back, many will begin working again, therefore paying taxes. They will be able to get a car (maybe not right away, but eventually), therefore supporting businesses in Virginia, and taxes. They will buy gas, which has a tax to it! They will contribute to their family, be a model for their children. The list literally goes on and on.

While this seems logical to me, it is not too many. It was apparent today when listening to argument on the House floor and hearing comments from Delegates Bell and Gilbert (of which many other Delegates were shaking their heads in agreement) that basically stated, “this is assuming the people without a license want to work.” Excuse me? So, everyone who has made a mistake does NOT want to get their life back on track? After we left the house floor, our REAL LIFE clients who were there were pumped, but also felt demoralized. They could not believe they were being torn down by words of people on the floor, when they are working very hard to rebuild their life. Their feedback can be seen on our Facebook page on the live video of our “reactions after” video.

Sure, we all can agree we wish crime wasn’t a thing. Of course. We wish addiction didn’t plague our community. We wish none of that were an issue! But, that is NOT reality. And since it IS our reality, we must be solution minded. No one is saying reward the animal that is behind bars that is not remorseful and doesn’t want to change. No one is saying unlock all jails and let everyone roam free. But, what we are begging for is a chance….. once someone serves their sentence and pays their punishment, why can’t they be given a fair shot to get their life together and do something different? They can’t, because we as society put up every roadblock to prohibit their successful reintegration.

As Senator Black shared on the floor today, “when it comes to violent crime, hang them high…. But we put fees on everything. We put a fee on people without political clout because they can’t get back at you. And they can’t pay their fees because they are so poor.” He went on to say, “I don’t know how this is going to work out, but if we have 600,000 or 700,000 people without a license, that is a problem.” Amen! Commonsense!

You see, in 2008 when I started in this line of work, I was conducting research for my dissertation at VCU. I was conducting evaluation research on a program run in the Richmond Jail (under CT Woody, Jr.) that was run by the McShin Foundation. Raised in a law enforcement household in the suburbs and brought up conservative, I went in with that view. “They know right from wrong, if you want to stop going to jail, just stop doing this. And by the way, if you want to stop using drugs, just quit.” Boy, I quickly realized how IGNORANT that was. 100% stupid. Over my 5-year research period, over 2,000 hours in the jail, conducting hundreds of interviews and reviewing thousands of surveys, I realized the inmates were humans. They had a story too. I began to know them. Care about them. Respect them. And I realized, that while nothing justifies crime or illegal behavior, I came to an understanding of why many began to do what they do. As one of my taxpaying, currently law abiding, friends who is a father and also someone in long term recovery said today, “Most people with substance use disorder have never been taught responsibility, they are stricken by poverty, or given an opportunity to make the best out of their lives. Most suffer from trauma from physical, mental and sexual abuse. But hey, what do I know, I’m just a recovering addict” (Tim Alexander).

Senator Carrico today shared, “I tried to teach my kids the way to stay out of trouble is not to get in trouble.” And yes, that is so true. That is pretty much the way I was brought up too. In fact, he and my father served together in the state police, so this is all too familiar. However, what if someone didn’t have parents raising them. They didn’t have parents to teach them this? What about the kids whose parents were locked up and running the streets? What about the mom who is so engaged in prostitution that her “john” is more than her kids. What about the parents who work around the clock and do not raise their kids? Is it their fault they were born into these tragic situations? I will never forget my first true encounter with an inmate at the jail who was severely impacted by trauma…. He shared with me, “it wasn’t until my mid-20’s I realized my upbringing wasn’t normal.” He went on to share, “my mom had sex with me the whole time I was a kid. I thought it was normal. I thought that was the way moms showed loved for their kids.” What about him? Can we expect the same from him as we do from Senator Carrico’s kids?

And, then you have the families with great parents, but maybe they got divorced and that tragically affected the child (because divorce is in the top 10 most significant traumas a child can experience). Divorce affects all, including the wealthy.  What about the person who got hooked on pain pills that were medically prescribed to them by a doctor – someone they should trust? Or what about a person who just made crumby decisions, because we all make them?  Should they not have a chance at redemption.

Senator Carrico continued to share, “If people make mistakes, they have to own up to them. You have to take something away in order to get them to do the right thing.” I would ask, what about incarceration? What about probation? Community service? Weekend time? Custody of children being taken? Is this not considered having something taken away?

You see, through my 5 years of research, the surveys, and interviews, I realized that as a society, if we do not see the problem, we can’t reach a solution. As that is when I decided, I am going to be a part of the solution. And sadly, there are too many of our legislators that do not see the problem. They see the blood and guts in the media. They see the terrible decisions people make. They see it through a conservative lens. They see it through the lock them up and throw away the key lens. They love the talking points “tough on crime.” They do not want to be known as being “soft on crime.” But friends, this is not about not being tough. It’s not about being soft. It’s about being SMART and seeing humans as humans. It’s about allowing someone to live a life after serving their punishment. It’s about doing what is right and valuing every single life the same! After all, 95% of those behind bars will be released back into society. We need them to be humans and to live a different life.

We are so appreciative of Delegates Freitas and LaRock for speaking out – going against their party and really getting to know and understand the issues. We appreciate Senators Stanley, Black, Barker, Saslaw, Ebbin, Sutterlein, and Hanger for their words and encouragement to their colleagues for this support. We are grateful for all who voted in favor of the Governor’s amendment. And we are so appreciative to the Governor for being innovative and caring to even place this item in his budget.

But friends, this is just the beginning. This is a one-year budget. It is going to be a hot topic during the 2020 session. We must gear up now and reach out to those who voted no and thank those who voted yes. We must be vocal NOW on these issues and others that affect what we do and care about. So, let us know if you want to be a part of our movement. We will keep you posted and would love to have you a part of our team!