It’s a throwback to the war-on-drugs era: a state law that suspends the driver’s license of anyone convicted of a drug-related offense for up to five years after their release from prison, sending them back into society without the benefit of using their own motor vehicle. It’s effectively an additional punishment beyond the time already served by convicts, meant to send a message and deter future drug activity.
While most of the Legislature has recognized the additional punishment as outdated and counterproductive, some members are clinging to the idea. Lawmakers, as they hash out a final bill, should recognize that the 27-year-old law has not been shown to deter illegal activity and, in fact, only increases the likelihood of recidivism.
All the law seemed to do was block successful reentry for convicts, crippling their employment options and adding a needless financial burden. Recognizing a failed criminal justice policy, Massachusetts political leaders have built momentum to repeal the law. First the Senate passed a bill in September to eliminate the automatic driver’s license suspension. Attorney General Maura Healey and the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association have voiced support for the reform. In early January the House passed a version of the bill, but with a disappointing amendment: The mandatory suspension would remain for those convicted of drug trafficking. The bill is now being hashed out in conference committee.
A group of Republican representatives prevailed in keeping the amendment, reasoning that it should apply to the most serious drug offenses. State Representative James Lyons of Andover told the Globe that license suspension repeal shouldn’t apply to “thugs who are selling drugs to our family members.” It’s a tough-on-crime sentiment that harks back to the original, 1980s-vintage view that led to the failed law.
The Republican amendment ignores the complete lack of evidence to support the theory that suspending a former convict’s driver’s license deters future crime. “I was surprised, and I was disappointed,” Senator Harriette Chandler, a cosponsor of the bill, said about the House amendment in CommonWealth magazine. “I felt it was going back to the same kind of thinking that got us to this place originally.”
Convicted traffickers need the same chance to pull their lives together as those convicted of lesser drug crimes. The Legislature, which promises to address other common-sense criminal justice reforms, including mandatory minimum sentences, should adhere to the Senate version of the bill.