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editorial

An offense that should come off the books

Edwin Melendez of Worcester lost his driver’s license due to a nondriving drug conviction. Besides walking to and from work to support his family, he says the hardest part is not being able to drive his kids to medical appointments.
Edwin Melendez of Worcester lost his driver’s license due to a nondriving drug conviction. Besides walking to and from work to support his family, he says the hardest part is not being able to drive his kids to medical appointments.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff/Globe Staff

Massachusetts lawmakers are considering a bill to repeal a 26-year-old state law that automatically suspends, for up to five years, the driver’s license of people convicted of drug crimes and then charges them a $500 fine to reinstate it. The Legislature should end this outdated practice and pass the proposed legislation.

The bill would eliminate the mandatory suspension of driving privileges in cases where individuals have been convicted of drug offenses that are not related to a motor vehicle or driving. The intent behind the original policy was to crack down aggressively on rising drug crime by imposing inflexible sentences and harsh punishments — part of the tough-on-crime criminal justice movement of the 1980s and 1990s. Taking away the driver’s license of someone convicted of a drug crime, the thinking went, would hinder the offender’s ability to continue pursuing criminal endeavors after serving prison time, whether for drug abuse or drug trafficking.

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And yet, no evidence has been found to support the policy, which was condemned last year by the Prison Policy Initiative. Researchers found no proof that it deterred illicit drug activity. Instead, the practice can destroy the offender’s ability to earn a living, attend required court sessions, or, ironically, receive drug or alcohol treatment. To make matters worse, the license suspension shows up on driving records, giving potential employers a ready means of finding out about a past criminal conviction. (For this reason, the proposed legislation would also purge offenders’ driving records of all listings of past license suspensions related to drug crimes.)

The good news is that more and more states have realized that suspending driving privileges for nondriving offenses only creates an unfair burden after convicts have done their time. More than 30 states have ended this discredited policy. Massachusetts is now the only New England state that adheres to it.

A Globe story earlier this month detailed the law’s unintended consequences. Nearly 5,500 individuals convicted of drug crimes had their license suspended last year. But the number could have been higher — some lawyers say that many charged with drug crimes believe it is better to admit to a crime and hope for a continuation without a finding, thus potentially avoiding the license suspension.

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An anachronism from a generation ago, the license suspension law is as ineffective as it is harsh. The Massachusetts law should be repealed so that those convicted of drug offenses have a better chance to rebuild their lives.