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«Driving on Empty» Released


Pat Levy-Lavelle
Attorney, Legal Aid Justice Center
804-521-7308 |

New Report: Court Reforms Don’t Ease License Suspensions
Commonwealth’s suspended drivers sentenced to 348,000 days
in jail annually 
for driving while in default

Richmond, Va., January 24, 2018—Nearly one million Virginia driver’s licenses remain suspended for unpaid court debt a year after significant legislative and judicial efforts at reforms aimed at helping people reinstate their licenses, according to a new report released today by the Legal Aid Justice Center.

Between 2011 and 2015, the Commonwealth’s license-for-payment system led to the sentencing of approximately 1.74 million jail days for people charged with driving on a license suspended only for failure to pay court fines and costs, which is an average of more than 348,000 jail days each year.

The report,“Driving on Empty: Payment Plan Reforms Don’t Fix Virginia’s Court Debt Crisis,” examines 116 general district court payment plan policies and finds that:

  • Payment plan policies in place across Virginia are not designed to take into account people’s individual financial circumstances, resulting in unrealistic and unaffordable payment plans that often lead to default;
  • More than 1/3 of GDC polices do not mention ability to pay at all. None provides any indication how it evaluates ability to pay or what that means for payment plan terms; and
  • Many courts have no community service provisions (or very restrictive community service provisions), charge arbitrarily high down payments to enter plans, fail to mention the statutory right to seek modification of plans, or restrict access to subsequent payment plans for indebted Virginians who default.   

“Virginia’s automatic license suspension policy is quite literally Virginia’s form of debtor’s prison,” said Pat Levy-Lavelle, attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center. “If you can’t drive, you can’t work, and you can’t pay. And if you do drive, you go to jail—and even the most generous of payment plan policies can’t save you.”

To read more about Virginia’s license-for-payment system, go to

Driving on Empty Report (pdf)


 The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) fights injustice in the lives of individual Virginians while rooting out exploitative policies and practices that keep people in poverty. LAJC uses impact litigation, community organizing, and policy advocacy to solve urgent problems in areas such as housing, education, civil rights, immigration, healthcare and consumer finance. LAJC’s primary service areas are Charlottesville, Northern Virginia, Richmond and Petersburg, but the effects of their work are felt statewide.

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