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September 24, 2013

MAUREEN HAYDEN: Is pulling a license good public policy?

Ind., other states wrestling with issue

Back in 1990, when the nation was still deep into the “war on drugs,” Congress passed a law that compelled states to suspend the driver’s licenses of all convicted drug offenders or risk losing part of their federal highway funds. A state could opt out only if its legislature and governor went on the record opposing the law.

At the time, it was seen as a major public policy decision that, in essence, said this: There is a clear societal interest in keeping people off the road who’ve committed a crime, even if that crime has nothing to do with a person’s ability to drive safely.

In 1996, Congress came back again with the same remedy for “deadbeat” parents. The federal welfare-reform bill made all states grant the courts or government agencies the power to suspend or restrict the driver’s licenses of people overdue on their child support payments.

Since then, states have used the penalty for a whole slew of offenses unrelated to traffic crimes. Drop out of school, get caught defacing a building with graffiti or sneaking into a bar as a minor — those are just a few of the offenses that can put your driver’s license at risk here in Indiana.

Is that good public policy? That’s a question being asked by some members of the Legislature’s Criminal Law and Sentencing Policy Study Committee, which is engaged in the ongoing (and thankless) effort of rewriting Indiana’s criminal code.

One factor driving the question: the estimated 350,000 Hoosiers who’ve had their licenses suspended or revoked, triggering them to lose their car insurance as well as their driving privileges. Too many are out there driving anyway. Some are joyriding, but others just need to get to work or school. If caught, the penalties — including escalating license-reinstatement fees — quickly pile up.

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