The Role Driver’s Licenses Play in Black Male Incarceration

Dec 20, 2013

Staff at the CDLRE walk clients through the steps necessary to reinstate suspended licenses.
Credit Center for Driver's License Recovery and Employability

One issue that’s come up repeatedly in our Project Milwaukee interviews on the imprisonment of African American males is driving privileges.

Jordan Fox says people sometimes call him “Miss Daisy” because he drives so slowly. He says he doesn’t want to attract police attention. The 26-year-old says he lives on Milwaukee’s south side, but fears getting stopped when he heads north, where his kids’ mom lives. Fox calls it the “pull over zone.”

“I got pulled over coming from dropping my daughter off at school and (the officer) told me I didn’t have my seatbelt on so he pulled me over and he says, ‘your license is suspended,’” Fox says.

Fox says the court had suspended his license, for failing to pay tickets. In one incident, he picked up numerous citations from a single officer.

“He gave me seatbelt, he gave me tinted windows, he gave me the cracked windshield, bald tire, driving while suspended, no insurance,” Fox says.

“We have very aggressively suspended and revoked licenses for people, for failure to pay fines, in effect, driving while poor,” says UW-Milwaukee researcher Lois Quinn, co-author of the study earlier this year on the state’s high black male incarceration rate. It found that in recent years, 90 percent of the African American men in Wisconsin’s prisons did not have a valid driver’s license.

What contributes to the problem, in Quinn’s opinion, is that Milwaukee police concentrate patrols in areas where primarily low-income black residents live.

Police Chief Edward Flynn defends the practice of focusing on areas where criminal activity is taking place. He says officers can use discretion.

“Eighty percent of the people we stop don’t get a citation. We are obviously in positions where if somebody does something truly reckless and we stop them, or if they don’t have a license, we’re kind of left holding the bag. If we stop, you don’t have a license, we can’t say, you know, ‘go and drive,’” Flynn says.

Flynn says the goal of traffic stops is to protect people.

David Liners is with WISDOM, a coalition of faith groups working to reduce the prison population. He says minor traffic violations can be part of what causes some people to spiral downward.

“Traffic tickets all by themselves aren’t what land people in prison, but they’re just one more straw, one more burden that gets laid on people who are having a hard time making a go of it,” Liners says.

For example, if you don’t have a valid license, you might face a tough time getting or keeping a job. That’s where some say there’s another link between driver’s licenses and black male incarceration. Angela Catania is program supervisor for the Center for Driver's License Recovery and Employability (CDLRE) in Milwaukee. It helps people with outstanding tickets find ways to pay them off. Catania says many ex-offenders have to drive, if they want to create a better life for themselves.

“Many of the manufacturing jobs have moved outside of the city of Milwaukee and into even outlying counties, and the public transportation system just doesn’t really get there. So that really does leave the only option of driving if you do want to try to get to work, but then you’re still risking getting pulled over,” Catania says.

Catania says drivers who don’t make payment arrangements may end up with a warrant for their arrest. It could show up on criminal background checks employers conduct.

“Employers will often use a driver’s license as a measure of responsibility when screening applicants. So even if it’s a non-driving job, they’ll say, ‘well, this person has a valid driver's license and this person doesn’t. The person that has the driver's license must clearly be more responsible,’” Catania says.

And joblessness is cited as a major contributor to crime.

One Milwaukee resident working with the CDLRE is Jordan Fox. That’s the man who says he’s earned the nickname “Miss Daisy” for driving so slowly. He racked up more than $4,000 in fines related to traffic stops.

In coming months, we’ll explore the impacts of the state’s high rate of black male incarceration, and ways to reduce the numbers.