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Legislature approves ending license suspensions for certain crimes in Pa.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette logo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 10/22/2018 By Kate Giammarise / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
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Joyce Douglass, a retired state parole agent, can recall many initial conversations with the parolees she supervised. She would tell them that they had to get a job and support their families, and pay their court fines and restitution.

“Then, I would have to have the discussion with them about how they had no driver’s license,” because of their criminal record, she said.

Not being able to drive was an enormous barrier to employment and to successfully re-entering society for people who had past convictions.

A year after retiring in 2015, Ms. Douglass, started meeting with her local legislator, state Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Elizabeth, in 2016 to ask for help in eliminating certain license suspensions for non-driving offenses.

In the final hours of the legislative session last week, lawmakers in Harrisburg overwhelmingly approved a bill that will end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for those convicted of certain non-driving offenses. The measures had the support of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and a host of other criminal-justice reform and jobs groups.

Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to sign the bill this week.

House Bill 163 ends suspensions for crimes such as non-driving-related state or federal drug convictions; underage purchase, consumption, possession or transportation of liquor, malt or brewed beverages in a licensed facility; purchase of tobacco by a minor, and several other non-driving, non-violent offenses.

“With all the divisiveness that’s going on our society today, this is a bill that everybody agrees on,” Mr. Saccone said last week.

Advocates had said Pennsylvania was one of a dwindling number of states that suspended driver’s licenses for convictions such as drug offenses, a practice that became widespread during the war on drugs policies in the 1990s.

Continuing such a practice hurt the poor, people of color and many trying to re-enter the workforce after a conviction, advocates said.

“The best reason for Pennsylvania to discontinue this unfair policy is that programs like these overwhelmingly punish low-income people by trapping them in cycles of debt and poverty,” Maxwell King, president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation and former state Sen. Matt Smith, president of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, wrote in an op-ed published last month in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

According to statistics from the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania obtained through the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the state suspended thousands or tens of thousands of licenses annually for crimes such as truancy, theft, or purchase of tobacco or alcohol by a minor, or drug offenses.

At a state legislative committee hearing on the bills last year, a PennDOT official said that in 2016 the agency received and processed approximately 27,000 drug-conviction violations and supported doing away with such suspensions not related to driving or safety. Others who testified in support of ending the practice included representatives from Amachi Pittsburgh, which assists the children of incarcerated parents, and the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh, which trains ex-offenders for jobs in the construction trades.

The legislation is not retroactive and will not impact suspensions that have already been imposed, PennDOT spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick said.

A related bill, House Resolution 76, whose chief sponsor was Rep. Dan Miller, D-Mt. Lebanon, was adopted overwhelmingly by the House in April and by the Senate last week. Mr. Miller’s bill makes sure the state will not lose any federal highway funds because of the change.

Mr. Miller said he believes the legislation will give people greater access to remaining in the workforce and treatment options for people in drug addiction and recovery.

Ms. Douglass said she is grateful the legislation has been approved, but she noted that it is only one step toward eliminating obstacles for people returning from incarceration.

“It will eliminate one of the barriers for re-entry. There are plenty of them,” she said. “There’s just still so much work to be done.”

Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3909.

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