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Addressing Driver's License Issues for Milwaukee Workers

A critical issue facing central city Milwaukee residents is access to jobs -- jobs that are increasingly beyond the Milwaukee County bus lines. The spatial mismatch between available jobs and job seekers is most acute in low-income Milwaukee neighborhoods, where job seekers outnumber full-time openings by a gap of seven to one and only a third of unemployed job seekers have a valid driver's license. Over the past 15 years the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute has conducted extensive employment research on the importance of a driver's license. Among the findings:

  • Mothers with young children on welfare and in subsidized child care were twice as likely to find sustained employment if they had a driver's license. For this population, having a driver's license was more important for finding steady work than a high school diploma.

  • Many Milwaukee teens are unlikely to be employed full-time as adults due to non-driving suspensions they received as juveniles.

  • Minorities are most likely to have driver's license problems related to fine collections. Those who continue to drive to work with suspended licenses often are stopped for minor vehicle ("driving while poor") or traffic infractions only to be cited for driving under suspension or revocation -- far more serious offenses.

WUWM: The role driver's licenses play in black male incarceration

BBC: Milwaukee police use traffic stops to "disrupt criminal activity"

WUWM: Nearly 100K driver's licenses suspended each year in Milwaukee

WUWM: Chief Flynn says police not the cause of the high rate of black male incarceration

Neighborhood News Service: Mounting fines for minor infractions hit low-income driver's hardest

WisconsinEye: Job training, prison diversion and driver's license policy changes needed

ETI Research on Driver's Licenses, Suspensions and Revocations in Milwaukee County

driver's license report The Employment and Training Institute examined driving records of 629,222 Milwaukee County residents in the state Department of Transportation files, including drivers with a current license as of January 2012 and other residents in the DOT files with suspensions and revocations in 2009 through 2011.

Among the highlights:

  • As a result of legislative reforms initiated by the CDLRE (see below), the number of revocations issued to Milwaukee County residents dropped by over 17,000 from 2009 to 2011.
  • Annual OAR (operating after revocation) charges dropped from 10,124 to 64, and OWS (operating while suspended) revocations went from 5,815 to 130.
  • Drug conviction suspensions have all but been eliminated under legislative reforms initiated by the CDLRE.
  • License suspensions issued for failure to pay forfeiture (FPF) remain extremely high -- 97,036 suspensions in 2011. Three-fourths of suspensions issued to county residents in 2011 were for FPF rather than for unsafe driving.
  • In the last 3 years over 23,000 residents had DOT suspensions solely for non-payment of fines and forfeitures. This does not include persons with other suspensions for unsafe driving offenses or with revocations for any reason.
  • African American males in their twenties have the most serious suspension and revocation problems.
  • Given the costs of driver's education for schoolage youth and failure of the state to support inschool driver's ed, far fewer minority teens have licenses or learning permits.
Center for Driver's License Recovery & Employability

driver's license recovery program One of the most promising workforce initiatives in Milwaukee is the Center for Driver's License Recovery and Employability, established in March 2007 to increase the number of licensed driver's among Milwaukee County's low income populations. The CDLRE provides driver's license recovery assistance to county residents aged 18 and above, with suspended and revoked driver's licenses, income at 200% of poverty or below, and having no pending Operating While Intoxicated (OWI) offenses. Major partners in the program include Wisconsin Community Services, Legal Action of Wisconsin, Milwaukee Area Technical College, and the Municipal Court of Milwaukee.

An analysis of license issues as of 2012 found the following accomplishments of the CDLRE from an employment perspective:

  1. Aiding hundreds of county residents in handling their driver's license problems and restoring their driving privileges.
  2. Dramatic reductions in the number of revocations issued in Milwaukee County and statewide.
  3. Near elimination of drug conviction suspensions.
  4. Promotion of programs to help lower-income teens secure affordable access to driver's ed and assistance in getting their license.
  5. Recognition of the importance of helping ex-offenders restore their driving privileges.
  6. Providing public education about the Failure to Pay Forfeiture ("driving while poor") suspension policies and modeling community service and installment payment alternatives.
  7. Identifying the driver's license as a primary asset for employment.

The Employment and Training Institute has conducted three program evaluations of the CDLRE program from 2007 to 2010.

  • Third Year Evaluation of the Center for Driver's License Recovery & Employability (2010) found continuing high license recovery success rates (57% for the three-year period) even though the client population served in 2009 had more difficult challenges (i.e., more clients without employment, more referrals from the corrections and court systems, and more clients with multiple legal problems). Clients were referred to the program from a network of City of Milwaukee, social services, employment services, legal, court, and corrections agencies and faced problems in over 100 different municipal and circuit courts. (The largest number of cases -- 2/3 of the total -- were in Milwaukee municipal court.) The program is housed in the Milwaukee Area Technical College whose students also use the program. All clients are low-income and 92% are minorities.

  • Second Year Evaluation of the Center for Driver's License Recovery & Employability (2008) tracked earnings of clients completing case management services in 2007 and found early gains of $759 per quarter ($253 a month) for women obtaining their driving privileges. Women successfully obtaining their driving privileges showed a 64% increase in earnings in First Quarter 2008 (compared to First Quarter 2007), while women not obtaining their driving privileges showed only 4% gains. Improvements were also seen in the unemployment rate among successful CDLRE male clients (dropping from 58% to 54%) and in the percentages of men earning at least full-time minimum wages. However, men's history of prior state incarceration was a stronger predictor of their First Quarter 2008 earnings than either their level of schooling or driver's license attainment. Over a fourth of male clients served by the CDLRE had records of incarceration in state correctional facilities, and 58% of these men obtained their driving privileges.

    The low-income residents seeking assistance from the CDLRE faced a daunting array of obstacles for restoration of their driving privileges. They owed $782,815 in outstanding fines and had 4,140 cases involving 60 different municipal and circuit court systems. From January to July 2008, 60% of CDLRE clients obtained their driving privileges, even higher than the 51% success rate reported for 2007. License recovery rates reached 70% for clients referred by employment service agencies and for clients who received legal services as part of their case management (the most difficult cases).

    The problem of low-income residents, and particularly younger workers, driving without a license has serious negative consequences for the courts and was reflected in lower earnings reported for clients prior to their entry into the CDLRE program. Two-thirds of the teen clients (and 52% of clients in their 20s) had suspensions and revocations (many initially due to failure to pay fines unrelated to driving, such as curfew violations, jaywalking, underage drinking) but no driver's license. Wisconsin discontinued state support for driver's education in the high schools a number of years ago. Youth under age 18 are required to enroll in a certified driver education program (most at their own expense), and high school dropouts under age 18 are not eligible for a Wisconsin license under current rules. As of April 2008, an estimated 11,855 City of Milwaukee teens ages 16 and 17 did not have a driver's license or learning permit, and almost half of these teens lived in inner city neighborhoods.

  • Assessment of 2007 Client Outcomes for the Center for Driver's License Recovery & Employability (2008) reviewed the first year of operation and found high success rates in clients obtaining license privileges. All clients were low-income, 96% faced financial fines or court costs. 93% were minorities, and 2/3 were males (the group most impacted by driver's license concerns). The largest group served were African American males.

    The emphasis of the CDLRE services model is on personal responsibility with clients expected to redress their licensing problems. Clients are provided advice on the steps required to restore or obtain their driving privileges and offered tools needed to maintain a clear license in the future. Case managers and legal staff provide training to clients on how to work through the court systems, identify deadlines and action steps required, and monitor each client's progress. One important feature of the CDLRE program is developing supervised community service alternatives for clients unable to meet the financial costs of outstanding fines and fees. Nearly half of the clients coming to the CDLRE perform community service work to help pay their outstanding fines.

Also, see the Radio Milwaukee (88.9) community story on Ron Lee's adult driver education programs.

Research on Driver's License Barriers to Employment

A number of additional Employment and Training Institute reports have analyzed transportation barriers to employment for Milwaukee workers.

The EARN (Early Assessment and Retention Network) Model for Effectively Targeting WIA and TANF Resources to Participants (2007) recommends a data-driven service delivery system for Milwaukee with early detection of barriers to employment prior to delivery of services and for targeting post-exit services to those identified as high-risk. Post-program wage data on WIA participants with less than 12 years of education showed that those with a valid driver's license were four times more likely to show earnings above the poverty level, compared to those without a current license.

voting symbol The Driver License Status of the Voting Age Population in Wisconsin, (2005) provides a first-time analysis of the driver's license issues based on the race and ethnicity of drivers and unlicensed adults in Wisconsin. Less than half (47%) of Milwaukee County African American adults and 43% of Hispanics adults have a valid driver's license compared to 85% of white adults in the balance of Wisconsin outside of Milwaukee County. For young adults ages 18-24, only 26% of African Americans and 34% of Hispanics in Milwaukee County have a valid driver's license, compared to 71% of young white adults in the Balance of the State.

Barriers to Employment: Prison Time (2007) found that only 7% of Milwaukee County residents released from state correctional facilities showed evidence of a valid driver's license with no recent suspensions or revocations. The study recommends that the City of Milwaukee and the Department of Corrections cooperate to help address driver's license problems prior to release.

Removing Transportation Barriers to Employment: The Impact of Driver's License Suspension Policies on Milwaukee County Teens (2000) identified 9,046 Milwaukee County teens (ages 16-18) with suspended licenses, with 87% of the suspensions solely for failure to pay fines.

Removing Transportation Barriers to Employment: Assessing Driver's License and Vehicle Ownership Patterns of Low-Income Populations (1998), showed 116,857 Milwaukee County adults (ages 18-55) with suspension orders. More suspension orders were issued for failure to pay municipal fines than for driving while intoxicated, traffic-related violations, and drug convictions combined.

Driver's License Recommendations: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Editorial Board

The use of the driver's license in Milwaukee as punishments for not paying fines (and leading to thousands of license suspensions) was the subject of a community discussion convened on June 11, 2007 by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board. The discussion included Tyrone Dumas of the Milwaukee Public Schools; James Gramling, former Milwaukee municipal judge; Herman John of the Milwaukee Bar Association; and John Pawasarat, director of the Employment and Training Institute. Following this session, the editorial board launched an occasional series on "No License: A Roadblock to Work" and issued recommendations for improving the current situation where thousands of Milwaukee County workers have suspended or revoked licenses.

The editorial board recommended the following. (See the January 19, 2008 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial for the rationale for each recommendation.)

  1. The state (Governor Jim Doyle and the Wisconsin Legislature) should "opt out of a federal law that requires at least a six-month suspension of driver's licenses for all drug offenses."

  2. The state should "require the courts to grant indigent or low-income defendants reasonable installment payment plans in lieu of the automatic suspension of their licenses."

  3. The state should allow state courts to "sentence indigent defendants to community service in non-criminal traffic offenses."

  4. The state should "encourage courts to collect overdue fines through holds on income tax refunds."

  5. The state should "reinstate universal driver's education in the public schools."

  6. The state should "bar courts from charging fees to reopen driver's licenses."

  7. The state should "step up funding for agencies . . . such as the Center for Driver's License Recovery and Employability."

  8. "Agencies involved in boosting employment [i.e., the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board and the W-2 agencies] should milk driver's license data to identify participants who need help in getting valid licenses."

  9. "The state Department of Workforce Development should require that Wisconsin Works agencies aggressively seek to help their clients repair any driver's license problems."

  10. "The Department of Corrections should help its population to obtain valid driver's licenses upon release."

  11. Local governments should "forbid the use of driver's license suspension for non-payment of fines."

  12. The Milwaukee Common Council should end the "practice of requiring residents to pay for the privilege of parking in front of their homes."

  13. "Employers should require a license only if it's related to the job."

Full copies of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorials are available online, along with a streaming video discussion of the issues, at the following websites:

  • "Editorial: Unfair suspensions leave workers idling. Revoking or suspending driver's licenses in Wisconsin has made it all that much harder for low-income residents to obtain and retain employment" Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 19, 2008. An accompanying article by Gregory Stanford traced the experience of three Milwaukee residents in restoring their driving privileges with assistance from the Center for Driver's License Recovery & Employability.

  • "Editorial: Stranded in Milwaukee. City officials are right to push for more jobs in the central city, but why do they make thousands of residents less employable by taking away their driver's licenses?" Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 27, 2007.

  • "Editorial: The poor take a big hit if a license becomes a club. Officials should scotch laws that take away driving rights for non-driving offenses. The lack of a license amounts to a big competitive disadvantage in a metro area built for the automobile" Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 17, 2007.

  • A perspective paper outlining the importance of the driver's license as a link to employment by John Pawasarat.

  • The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board discussion session in streaming video.

  • A column by Eugene Kane, " Restoring driver's license is key to opening many doors" encourages "outlaw drivers" (who continue to drive after receiving suspensions based on unpaid parking tickets and traffic violations) to "come in from out of the cold" by redressing these problems through the Center for Driver's License Recovery & Employability.

Milwaukee Shepherd Express Concerns with Safety

The Milwaukee Shepherd Express has explored safety issues related to teens not obtaining their driver's licenses due to state cut-offs of aid support for driver's education in the schools and requirements that 16 and 17-year-olds take a commercial or school driver's ed program prior to obtaining their probationary license. See:

License Initiatives in Other States

The Mobility Agenda, an Annie E. Casey initiative, describes license recovery efforts in Maryland and New Jersey in a 2008 report on Access to Driving and License Suspension Policies for the Twenty-First Century Economy.

  • In Baltimore lawyers for the Legal Aid Bureau have successfully challenged state practices to suspend licenses for non-custodial parents, arguing that reinstatement of the driver's license or allowing work-restricted licenses to allow the parent to work is in the child's best interest. Research in 1997 found that 9,000 non-custodial parents in Maryland had had their licenses suspended but only about 800 had gotten these licenses reinstated.

  • In New Jersey a 2001 study found that more than half of nearly 200,000 New Jersey drivers with suspended licenses had received the suspensions for failure to pay fines or fees rather than for safety violations. In response, the state legislature created a Motor Vehicles Affordability and Fairness Task Force which recommended an amnesty program and consideration of a "restricted license category" to help drivers with suspensions retain their jobs. A pilot License Reinstatement Program operates in Essex County.

A 2005 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and The Brookings Institution reported on license suspension policies affecting workers in 14 major U.S. cities. The study reported that "failure to pay a fine or appear in court is almost always the number one cause of license suspensions or revocations....Many times these fines or court appearances are for relatively minor driving or parking offenses, or non-driving related violations." (p.2) Most states studied offer a conditional license allowing suspended drivers to get to and from work.


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