Advocates Hope To Expand PA's Path To Restoring Driver's Licenses

Jan 6, 2020

 


On today's program: Gov. Tom Wolf discusses the odds of a minimum wage hike in Pennsylvania; a local woman empowers her neighbors in the "forgotten" West End; and advocates are hoping a change in state law could restore thousands of suspended or revoked drivers licenses. 

Gov. Wolf discusses priorities for 2020
(00:00 — 11:20)

At least 20 states are starting 2020 with a higher minimum wage, and four others will do the same later this year. Wolf says it's not likely Pennsylvania will join their ranks.

Although the state Senate approved raising the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour—among the lowest in the U.S.—to $9.50 an hour, the governor says he’s not optimistic the Republican-controlled House will bring it to his desk.

“It’s not only morally unconscionable, but it’s practically self-defeating,” says Wolf. “We actually spend hundreds of millions of dollars on our social safety net to companies whose employees make less than they should.” 

Wolf, who previously asked to increase the minimum to $12 an hour, says he will again propose a raise when he unveils his 2021 budget next month.

Wolf discusses this and other priorities for 2020, including reforming the state’s probation system, eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and statewide decriminalization of small amounts of recreational marijuana. 

A Sheradan resident "powers" her neighborhood
(12:22 — 16:03) 

Terri Minor Spencer started West End P.O.W.E.R. (Providing Opportunities with Effective Resources) more than four years ago to help redefine and rebuild community in Pittsburgh's West End. She spoke about P.O.W.E.R.'s origins with 90.5 WESA's Elaine Effort, as well as how she sees the organization evolving over time. 

Thousands hope to have their driver’s licenses restored
(16:04 — 36:50) 

Advocates celebrated last year when Act 95 took effect, ensuring people convicted of non-driving offenses would no longer have their driver’s licenses suspended. But the law wasn’t retroactive, and an estimated tens of thousands of formerly incarcerated Pennsylvanians still drive illegally.

Pittsburgher Chelsey Sirmons, who served time for multiple misdemeanor drug offenses, says he paid his debt to society, but it's been hard to feel like a full member of his community without access to a car. He says he’s been out of prison and sober for five years, but is still six years from getting his license back.

“Getting to and from work, groceries and spending time with my family become a lot easier with a vehicle,” says Sirmons, who is now a certified drug recovery specialist. “It's like, you paid your price, and now I’m paying another penalty without being able to get around to better, and continue to better my life.”

Retired state parole agent Joyce Douglass is now an advocate for people like Sirmons, as well as Billie Joe Varner of Washington County. Varner recently had his license reinstated, but not because of Act 95. He and attorney Shawn Stevenson, who has argued in favor of clients like Varner and Sirmons, are hoping Gov. Wolf or the state Department of Transportation will unilaterally make Act 95 retroactive, rather than waiting for legislation to wipe out the suspensions.

90.5 WESA's Caldwell Holden contributed to this report.

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