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The cost of locking up suspended drivers

By Jeff Terrill

Fort Wayne Reader

2012-02-16


Prisons are full and an extended stay in one is expensive. Most people want ďbad guysĒ taken off the street and sent away. That sentiment seems to shift when someone they know, such as a family member or friend, gets into a jam. Incarceration is expensive for everyone. Taxpayers and family members who lose a loved one to the Department of Correction pay a steep price.

According to a recent report from the Indiana Department of Correction, over 28,000 adults are incarcerated in the stateís prisons. That figure does not include incarcerated juveniles or people on probation or parole. Nor does it include those serving sentences in county jails or in electronic monitoring programs. On average, it costs $58 a day to incarcerate a person in an Indiana prison and over $21,000 for the year.

Many of the inmates are incarcerated for violent crimes and for very serious offenses. However, there are also a lot of people serving time in prison for victimless crimes and for not very serious offenses. Take for example the crime of operating a vehicle after a lifetime suspension. In Indiana, it is a Class C felony for a person to drive after that person has had his driving privileges suspended for life by the Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV). The crime is punishable up to eight years in prison. Blame lawmakers for that.

Keep in mind that a person can get a lifetime suspension without ever committing an alcohol related driving offense. Failure to pay a few speeding tickets, a misdemeanor conviction for driving while suspended and some poor decisions can result in a lifetime suspension for some people. Without the ability to drive, a person will struggle to find or keep a good job. Even attending school or vocational training is a challenge in most communities if a person canít get around.

In 2011, 43 women and 632 men were serving sentences in prison for Class C felony convictions for driving on a lifetime suspension. So, if my math is correct, then Indiana taxpayers paid over $14 million last year to house these people. Many of these people were probably arrested on their way to or from work. Now they are in prison. They canít earn or consume. They canít support their kids. Not only are they not paying taxes, they are forcing the taxpayers to support them.

Itís a Class D felony for a person to drive after that person is determined by the BMV to be an habitual traffic violator. A Class D felony is punishable up to three years in prison. In 2011, 418 adults were incarcerated in Indiana prisons for this offense. At $58 a day, the annual cost to lock these Class D felons up in prison was nearly $9 million. In total, the state spent $23 million last year to incarcerate these suspended drivers!

Some counties seem to do a much better job of injecting common sense and financial prudence when it comes to prison sentences. Many judges and prosecutors understand that locking a person up because he drove without a license should be reserved for the worst offenders. Many courts allow these types of offenders to serve suspended sentences on probation. Unfortunately, judges are powerless when it comes to reinstating habitual traffic violatorsí driving privileges. A person must first endure at least a five year license suspension before he is eligible to petition for probationary license privileges.

The laws should be geared to keep habitual traffic violators out of prison. Let them work and support themselves and their families. Require them to obtain car insurance. Send them to a driving course. Charge them a substantial fee for probationary driving privileges. How about $100 a week for the ability to drive? What would you pay? Thatís $5,200 each year that each driver would be paying to the state. Thereís a lot of talk about legalizing and taxing marijuana (and by the way, 799 people were incarcerated last year for Class D felony possession of marijuana, convictions at a cost of nearly $17 million). Why not just tax suspended drivers? The law needs to change. Seems like a no brainer. Keeping suspended drivers out of prison would save the state $23 million each year and could generate millions more through probationary driving fees.

Instead of locking these people up and throwing away the key. We need to unlock these people and give them back their (car) keys.

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Jeff Terrill is a partner/shareholder with the law firm of Arnold Terrill Anzini, P.C. Mr. Terrill represents clients accused of crimes throughout northeast Indiana. You can contact Mr. Terrill with any questions or comments at his office at 260.420.7777 or via email at jterrill@fortwaynedefense.com. Learn more about his firm at www.fortwaynedefense.com.

This article expressed opinions and observations of the author, is not intended as legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader. Please consult a qualified attorney with any legal questions or issues you might have. Thank you.

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