Channel 4 news ran a story called ‘Many Arrested for Unlicensed Driving See Charges Dismissed’ criticizing the District Attorney’s efforts to help those arrested on revoked licenses to restore their right to drive. In response, local attorney Daniel Horwitz penned the following:
Dear Ms. Amons,
My name is Daniel Horwitz, and I’m an attorney here in Nashville. I’m writing in reference to your story: “Many arrested for unlicensed driving see charges dismissed,” which I consider to be the frontrunner for the most thoughtless and irresponsible local story of the year.
You begin with a teaser that perfectly sets the stage for the train wreck to come: the supposition that “many might think people caught driving on a suspended or revoked license go to jail for months or even years.” I challenge you to source that. In fact, I defy you to source it, and I will happily throw down this gauntlet: if you can find even a single person in all of Davidson County who is willing to go on record estimating that the penalty for driving on a suspended license is “years in jail,” I will donate $180 to a charity of your choice—roughly approximating the minimum fee that most people are forced to pay just to have their driver’s licenses reinstated once the state is finished assessing its cornucopia of surcharges.
“The primary problem that I have with your story is that despite a sitting judge and the elected District Attorney of Nashville repeatedly attempting to explain the issue to you, you appear to be completely unaware of the vast body of research indicating that suspending people’s driver’s licenses for reasons unrelated to public safety is exceptionally poor public policy, and that doing so absolutely devastates the lives of the working poor. Given the widespread and consistent attention that has been devoted to this issue at the local, state, and national levels (like here; and here; and here; and here; and here; and here; and here; and here), that degree of ignorance can charitably be described as “stunning.”
“Furthermore, given the connection that you attempt to draw between driving on a suspended license and traffic fatalities, you also appear to be under the impression that people’s driver’s licenses are generally being suspended or revoked for reasons that bear some plausible connection to driving skills or driving offenses. “Last year, state records show there were 179 fatal crashes in Tennessee involving unlicensed drivers,” you note, followed by the sensationalized, quoted exclamation: “That’s a two-ton death machine they are driving without a license!” Right. As if driving a car after having one’s license suspended is like flying a plane without first being trained as a pilot.
“To those who know better, of course, the reality is that driver’s license suspensions in Tennessee rarely have anything to do with driving at all. Instead, driver’s license suspension is simply a punishment that we assess against people for being too poor to pay back a debt—such as their fines and court costs, their child support, or their student loans. And to be clear: people in Belle Meade don’t avoid charges for offenses related to driver’s license suspensions because they are better drivers than the people in Antioch and Bordeaux. They avoid them because on the very rare occasions that they have a brush with the law involving a fee or a fine, they are able to pay it off immediately and avoid having their driver’s licenses suspended in the first place.
“Sadly, this trail of tears carries on even before the myriad omissions that make your story so laughable. For example—is the public safer or less safe when drivers are licensed and thus able to obtain liability insurance? Are you actually ignorant of the utter devastation that results from imprisoning people (especially mothers and fathers) for extended periods of time? Did you know that poor people often have to drive to work, and thus, that making it a crime for them to drive to work perpetuates poverty and literally fabricates criminality? Do you realize that criminalizing an essential component of people’s daily lives solely because they are poor is only a single step removed from a debtor’s prison? Did you ever stop to consider the overwhelming racial disparities that are commonplace in driver’s license suspension enforcement? Did you somehow miss the fact that the villain in your story fled the scene because we have one of the nation’s stupidest and most viciously punitive driver’s license suspension laws, and that intentionally exacerbating the problem by pushing for a full year in jail per offense is all but guaranteed to increase the number of hit-and-run accidents? Do you realize that effectively criminalizing and repeatedly targeting the poor for poverty-related offenses tears apart the social fabric of society, and sows the seeds for eruptions like those we’ve witnessed recently in Baltimore, Ferguson, and any number of other municipalities across the United States? I could go on.
“Most importantly, though, as far as I’m concerned, the cavalier way with which you toss around imprisonment disqualifies you from reporting on criminal justice issues. Nowadays, most people have finally started to look around and ask how America could possibly have arrived at its current crisis of mass incarceration. And without question, we’re all responsible for standing idly by and failing to prevent the insanity as penalties mounted, sentences became mandatory, and imprisonment became commonplace. By using your position to promote extended imprisonment for petty offenses, however, you have the repulsive distinction of being a veritable cheerleader for the prison industry, leveraging society’s worst tendencies toward fear-mongering in an effort to perpetuate America’s exceptional status as the world’s leader in imprisoning its own citizens. You should be ashamed.
If you were simply reporting this story, I would probably give you a pass on all of this. But this wasn’t a news story. It was plainly an advocacy piece, beginning with its inflammatory title (“Many arrested for unlicensed driving see charges dismissed”), and continuing throughout with its barely-concealed criticism of the fact that Glenn Funk isn’t using the power of his office to incarcerate people for a full year for driving on a suspended license (e.g.: “A two-day sentence may sound light. . . .”; “In Davidson County, most people charged with driving on a revoked or suspended license don’t do any jail time at all.”; “Under Tennessee law, people who repeatedly drive on a suspended or revoked license can get up to a year in jail, but that’s not what the I-Team saw in court.”). That’s inexcusable.
As far as I’m concerned, Glenn Funk’s approach to driver’s license suspension reform is not only laudable—it’s the single brightest spot of his young administration and one of the best policy reforms instituted in all of Davidson County in recent memory. Moreover, the fact that Funk was presumably courageous enough to institute such a reform with full knowledge that people like you would unfairly criticize him for it makes it even more praiseworthy in my view. For some numbers:
“Between January 1 and April 28 of 2014, Davidson County residents spent a total of 5,900 inmate days in jail for driver’s license offenses. Then, after Funk took office, between January 1 and April 28 of 2015, Davidson County residents spent just 1,100 inmate days in jail for driver’s license offenses. That represents a reduction in unnecessary incarceration of more than 80%, projected annual cost savings to Metro government of more than $1.4 million, and a dramatic reduction in the human cost of Torry Johnson’s much more punitive suspension policy that now permits more people to be with their families and to continue functioning as working, productive members of society.
“If you’re going to fault his office for that—well, as far as I’m concerned, you don’t have a clue.