WORCESTER — Edwin Melendez was stealing Buicks and snorting cocaine by age 13. And for decades he stumbled in and out of jail, sometimes landing in a homeless shelter here called People in Peril.
Life is different now. Melendez, 45, is married. He volunteers with a ministry that serves food to homeless people every Saturday in his scruffy Main South neighborhood. And he is heavily involved in the drug-addiction recovery movement.
But when he was offered a state job collecting data on substance abuse treatment, he had to turn it down. The work required travel by car, and an old drug-possession conviction carried a lingering penalty: the suspension of his right to operate a vehicle.
“It hurt me a lot,” he said. “Recovery is something I’m passionate about. It saved my life.”
Massachusetts is one of several states that suspend a person’s driver’s license after a conviction for drug offenses — such as possession and distribution — that have nothing to do with driving. The 26-year-old law was designed, in part, to deter drug use.
There’s little evidence it has served as a deterrent. However, it has left tens of thousands of former convicts struggling to find work and do other basic things, like get to the grocery store. On a snow-encrusted day last winter, Melendez had to bundle his infant son to his chest and set out to the hospital on foot when he feared the boy was catching pneumonia.
Many have been unable to scrape together the hundreds of dollars in license reinstatement fees once their suspensions are up. And some have resorted to driving without a license, putting themselves at risk of extended suspensions, hundreds of dollars in new fines, and even jail time.
Advocates for recovery efforts say financial and familial strains make it difficult for offenders to get off drugs and stay out of prison. Nancy T. Bennett, a deputy chief counsel at the state’s public defender agency, said, “If you were going to develop a public policy to promote recidivism, isn’t this just the way you would do it?”
Repealing the measure is a top priority for activists pushing for a broad reconsideration of the state’s tough-on-crime policies of the 1980s and 1990s. The campaign has built some momentum in recent months, with Attorney General Maura Healey backing it and Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg declaring his support.
Governor Charlie Baker, cautious about changes in criminal justice laws, has indicated he is open to signing a repeal if it lands on his desk.
The debate has plunged the state into a national conversation on the issue. Lawmakers in Delaware and South Carolina in recent years repealed laws requiring suspensions for nondriving-related drug crimes.
Just last month, the Ohio Legislature took up a bill that would eliminate mandatory suspensions and give judges discretion over the penalty. “It never made any sense to me, frankly, why we should be suspending people’s driving privileges for things that have precious little to do with their driving habits,” said state Senator Bill Seitz, a Republican from the Cincinnati suburbs who introduced the legislation.
In Massachusetts, the length of a suspension varies with the severity of the offense. Possession brings a one-year revocation, possession with intent to distribute means three years, and trafficking carries a five-year penalty, the maximum under the law. For an offender without a license, the suspension serves as a temporary bar.
State data suggest the penalty falls disproportionately on those least able to afford it. Forty-four percent of those convicted of the drug crimes that trigger a suspension are minorities. And many live in low-income neighborhoods.
In the ZIP code that includes Melendez’s neighborhood, a tattered collection of churches, auto body repair shops, and faded apartment buildings, 580 people faced suspensions between 2010 and 2014 alone.
Melendez’s suspensions, for the drug possession conviction and for driving without a license, expired years ago. But he has been unable to muster the $850 he owes in reinstatement fees and related court costs.
He earns $11 per hour from a part-time job at an addiction recovery program that is a 1.4-mile walk from his apartment, and his wife collects $700 per month in disability payments for a child from a previous relationship.
Their combined income, he said, is consumed by rent, diapers for their youngest son, and school clothes for the older kids. “Everything is to make ends meet,” he said. “Nothing is wasted.”
Melendez’s struggle, it appears, is typical.
Last year, the state suspended licenses for 5,431 people convicted of drug crimes. Fewer than half that number, 2,441, paid to get their licenses back after suspensions ran their course (the figure does not include offenders who had reinstatement fees waived when they paid other fines).
Defense lawyers say the tally of suspensions and reinstatements does not tell the full story of the law’s impact. Many clients who would otherwise fight a drug charge decide against it, they say, worried about losing their licenses if convicted.
Instead, they admit to the offense in the hopes of getting something one step short of a conviction, known as a “continuation without a finding,” which allows them to hold onto their licenses but can come with other burdens — months of probation and mandatory drug treatment among them.
“I’ve had clients who vehemently disagreed with the police report and took pleas, sometimes against my advice, merely on the license issue,” said Scott Martin, a Randolph-based defense lawyer who works all over the state. “I’ve had that dozens of times. Probably more.”
Massachusetts lawmakers passed the driver’s license suspension measure in 1989, at the height of a tough-on-crime era here and around the country. Governor Michael Dukakis, at a signing ceremony, said he wanted to crack down on “neighborhood drug dealers who cruise the area looking for business and avoiding police.”
A year later, President George H.W. Bush signed a law withholding a portion of federal highway funds unless states agreed to suspend convicted drug offenders’ licenses for at least six months. The law allowed states to opt out, though, and 36 have done so, including every New England state but Massachusetts.
The Bay State repeal effort has been gathering force in recent months. Several sheriffs have spoken in support of it. And the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association has come out in favor, stating in a letter to lawmakers that license suspensions and reinstatement fees “add to the difficulty people face when trying to reintegrate into society.”
Not everyone, though, is convinced that repeal is necessary.
Brian E. Simoneau, a Framingham defense lawyer who specializes in motor vehicle law, notes that those truly in need of a license have some recourse. After they have served half of their suspensions, they can appeal to the Registry of Motor Vehicles for early reinstatement of their full licenses, or for hardship, or “Cinderella,” licenses that allow holders to drive 12 hours per day.
And while some drug offenders deserve to keep their licenses, Simoneau said, there are others who do not. “The government shouldn’t be giving hard-core drug dealers a tool to conduct distribution and trafficking of drugs,” he said.
Delia Vega, a community organizer with Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Advocating for Community Advancement, a Worcester-based group that is the main force behind repeal, counters that drug dealers have no qualms about driving without a license.
“It’s only hurting people who are trying to move forward with their lives,” she said.
Part of the problem, advocates say, is that drug-related suspensions leave a permanent mark on offenders’ driving records. And employers frequently check those records when making hiring decisions.
State Representative Elizabeth A. Malia, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, says employers should no longer have access to information on years-old convictions; the state, after all, recently moved to seal criminal records sooner than it once did in order to give former convicts a better shot at finding work.
So she has introduced legislation that would not only repeal the driver’s license suspension law, but also remove any mention of past suspensions from offenders’ driving records.
Malia says she will fight to keep that provision in her bill, even in the face of business opposition. And there is some business opposition.
Jon B. Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said a job applicant’s drug history is a legitimate area of concern for an employer selling pharmaceuticals or putting workers on the road.
“I understand that people make mistakes and need to move on,” he said. “But you can’t totally erase history.”
Michael Earielo lives with his history every day. His heroin use led to a debilitating spinal abscess.
“I just had my second surgery last year,” he said, lifting his shirt to reveal a large scar between his shoulder blades.
Earielo, 45, first felt the back pain while in custody at the Worcester County House of Correction. In a lawsuit, he alleges that the medical staff repeatedly ignored his complaints.
If he wins, he says, he may be able to do what feels like an impossibility now: pay the $1,400 he owes in driver’s license reinstatement fees for a drug offense and other unrelated violations.
“I made a lot of mistakes in my time,” he said. “But I’m trying to turn it around.”