Originally published in St. Louis Post Dispatch by Tony Messenger

Jamie Wesley didn’t want to see the judge.

It was 2017. Wesley had just done 12 years in federal prison on drugs and weapons charges.

The judge who sent him away, U.S. Senior District Judge E. Richard Webber, wanted to talk to him.

For Webber, this is nothing new. The longtime federal judge often visits with the people he has sentenced to prison when they are released.

“I just believe that everybody can have a better life,” he told a New York Times reporter a couple of years ago, in explaining his practice.

Wesley said no.

“I didn’t really want to go,” he says.

But he did, eventually, and it was a good thing. Webber encouraged him to get a job as an over-the-road trucker. The jobs pay well, the judge said.

Wesley was floored. The two men cried together.

And Wesley got to work. He earned a commercial truck driving license. By March 2018, he had a job hauling goods across the country. “It was a blessing,” he says.

Then the state of Missouri came calling.

It was Sept. 10, 2018. Wesley was about 120 miles outside of Lansing, Mich., when his boss called.

The family support division of the Missouri Department of Social Services had suspended his driver’s license because Wesley was behind on child support.

He couldn’t believe it. Wesley knew he was behind on child support for his two kids. They’re adults now, but the entire time he was in prison, the state kept adding to the total he was behind. When he got out of prison, Wesley filed a motion to modify his support. The state put a lien on his bank account. Wesley filed for a hearing to review that decision. He says he was told nothing would happen to his driver’s license until that hearing took place. It was scheduled for Sept. 24.

Now he had no driver’s license. He was fired on the spot, hundreds of miles from home.

“I had to pull over and sit and wait for somebody to come get me,” Wesley says. He slept in his truck on the side of the road.

Wesley’s dilemma is not uncommon in Missouri, and, in fact, most of the nation.

For too long, driver’s license suspension has been used as a debt collection tool for people who can’t afford court costs, who fall behind on child support, mostly for an inability to pay, and the practice has perverse results.

That’s why St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell announced a plan to stop prosecuting most child support cases in criminal court. And it’s why two civil rights organizations — Equal Justice Under Law and St. Francis Community Services — filed a federal class action lawsuit in March seeking to end Missouri’s practice of driver’s license suspension in child support cases.