Thanks to legislation recently passed in Mississippi, the formerly incarcerated may soon have more opportunity to meaningfully re-integrate into society. House Bill 971 extends the current renewal period for expired driver’s licenses from 18 months to five years. After that point, an individual would need to repeat the lengthy process of taking a driving examination. On March 31, the bill unanimously passed the Mississippi state House after full support by the Senate. It was signed by Republican Gov. Tate Reeves in April.
Unfortunately, Texas is lagging behind the Magnolia State when it comes to simplifying the driver’s license renewal process. Similar legislation introduced in the Texas legislature in 2021 failed to gain momentum, leaving a burdensome barrier in place for individuals with expired licenses.
As TPPF’s Nikki Pressley explains in a new report, such a barrier only exacerbates the difficulties of formerly incarcerated individuals seeking a better life.
While the Texas unemployment rate currently sits at 4.3%, the unemployment rate for the formerly incarcerated is estimated to be around 27%. After emerging from prison with a criminal record, these individuals have limited opportunities to support themselves and their families. If they lack reliable transportation, employment options narrow even further.
Expired driver’s licenses can be onerous to renew, particularly if they are suspended. A license may be suspended if fines and court fees are left unpaid, a common reality for not only the formerly incarcerated, but many individuals across the state with unpaid fines and fees. Such individuals are left in a Catch-22: to pay off their debts and renew their licenses before the two-year deadline for renewal, they need employment. However, the employment that would enable payment of debts often requires reliable transportation, which is predicated on a valid driver’s license.
These challenges to prosperity can be alleviated by a variety of approaches. As mentioned earlier, the driver’s license renewal period should be extended, which would give the formerly incarcerated, and the general public, more time to pay off any debts standing in the way of renewal.
Additionally, Texas should imitate the 22 states that have passed legislation reducing debt-based driving restrictions. Driver’s license suspensions can be a helpful tool to punish delinquent drivers but become counterproductive when applied to individuals earnestly trying to pay off debt. Legislators should unshackle Texans from restrictive “holds” on driver’s license renewals when an individual enters a payment or community service plan to eliminate debt.
True freedom entails more than the absence of physical imprisonment. Those who seek to improve their lives through meaningful work deserve the opportunity to secure the means required for it. Much-needed reforms to driver’s license regulations will galvanize the Texas economy and help advance the formerly incarcerated toward that goal.