The Lab @ DC
Stronger Evidence for a Stronger DC

Can encouragement to settle debt improve employment and recidivism?

Can encouragement to settle debt improve employment and recidivism?

Project Summary
Prior to 2018, the DC Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) refused services (such as driver’s licenses and vehicle registration) to individuals who owed traffic tickets or other DMV-related fines over $100. Realizing the far-reaching effects of this policy, the Mayor’s Office of Returning Citizen Affairs (MORCA) implemented a pilot program called the “Pathways Initiative” to help residents returning from jail or prison obtain driver’s licenses, despite outstanding DC ticket debt. We designed a study to test whether encouraging participation in the Pathways Initiative impacted recidivism, employment, and debt repayment. The study was discontinued due to implementation challenges, and at the same time, new legislation ended license suspensions due to unpaid tickets.

Why is this issue important in DC?
Without a driver’s license, residents risked job-loss and even incarceration if they continued driving. The law especially affected residents returning from jail or prison who typically face significant barriers to employment.

What did we do?
The Pathways Initiative provided a two-year driver’s license and help to settle the outstanding DMV-related debt. We designed a study to determine whether outreach, such as emails and calls, to those returning to the District from stints of incarceration increased participation in the Pathways Initiative.

We randomly assigned eligible participants of MORCA programs to receive outreach about the program or not. Though the goal was to measure the effect of Pathways Initiative on recidivism, employment, and debt repayment, all those eligible who wanted to participate were granted a spot in Pathways. This fact meant that our study’s design only allowed us to measure the effect of encouragement to participate in the Pathways Initiative.

What have we learned?
We don’t have results since the study was discontinued due to implementation challenges. It was operationally impossible to withhold program outreach from residents (on Twitter for example) meaning everyone ended up receiving some form of outreach. Coincidentally, new legislation on ending license suspensions was also introduced around the time the study ended.

Throughout this project, we learned more about the challenges of implementing a study within day-to-day operations of an agency and particularly alongside ongoing justice reform efforts. What we’ve learned has informed which projects we take on and how we devote more time to supporting implementation.

What comes next?
The Lab continues to explore project opportunities on the District’s sustained efforts on debt and license reform by joining stakeholder meetings and conversations around DC’s Clean Hands Law.

What happened behind the scenes?
The law that addressed many of the goals of the Pathways Initiative was signed by Mayor Muriel Bowser in the Fall of 2018, following a unanimous vote by the DC Council. The law built on growing local and national sentiment against using fines to raise revenue for state and local governments. This unfair use of fines was one of the many findings from the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2015 investigation into Ferguson, Missouri’s justice practices.