Durham, NC Just Finished Erasing $2.7 Million In Traffic Debt

The city found one in five adults had a suspended license for unpaid fees or failure to appear in court.

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“Criminal justice reform isn’t just about what happens in the courtroom,” says Satana Deberry, Durham, North Carolina’s District Attorney. “It’s a lot about the collateral consequences of prosecution, especially of low-level crimes and the resulting criminal debt.”

Deberry is talking about the impetus behind the Durham Expunction and Restoration program, DEAR for short, that launched in 2018 after a city analysis found that one in five adults in Durham had a suspended license due to either unpaid fines and fees or failure to appear in traffic court. The program has led to the waiving of $2.7 million in fines, putting 11,084 drivers back on the road and has dismissed roughly 50,000 charges—some of which date back to the mid ‘80s—that were tied to an additional 30,000 license suspensions.

A central motivator for the program was working to restore an equity imbalance, since residents of color, in both Durham and around the county, are disproportionately impacted by suspensions. Particularly in places without a robust public transportation system, a driver’s license is critical for not only everyday tasks like getting children to school and attending doctor appointments, but for economic mobility, too.

“A driver’s license has a direct correlation to people’s ability to get to work or school or just even participate in the economic aspects of their communities, to go to the movies or go grocery shopping,” Deberry says. Research supports her assertion. A 2019 brief from the American Constitution Society found that “license for payment schemes”, or the tying of license suspensions to the inability to pay, leads to multiple inequitable outcomes: depriving low-income families of money and opportunities while increasing their exposure to the criminal justice system. Because driver’s licenses are so vital to so many life activities, many people continue to drive even when their license is suspended, which often leads to more encounters with the criminal justice system and more fines and fees that they can’t pay. In the cases where people do manage to pay their fines to reinstate their licenses, these programs end up transferring wealth from low-income communities of color to the state.

The DEAR program came out of Durham’s office of innovation that was originally looking at economic barriers for those returning from incarceration. The team ultimately found that the inability to pay fines and fees is what kept low-income residents, formerly incarcerated or not, from the ability to drive.

The program began with one amnesty day a few years ago where community members could come to the courthouse and apply for their fines and fees to be waived, but the day netted only a small number of participants, largely because residents first had to text a number to find out information about their case. In an effort to reduce barriers to participation even further, the DEAR program rolled out a somewhat automatic approach.

“There’s a whole bunch of volunteer and pro bono hours that went into this,” Deberry says of the manual efforts of everyone from court clerks to the DA’s office to identify cases with fees that could be waived or traffic violation cases that could be dismissed that stretched back decades. To qualify for the program, cases had to be older than two years and not involve driving while impaired or fleeing arrest charges. Her office, in conjunction with judges and the like, purged qualifying cases in batches. The final purge of the program took place in October.

Moving forward, Deberry’s focus is on trying to not arrive in the same place again. “We try to work with people in the beginning around fines and fees,” she says. At the state level, the courts still have the ability to suspend, revoke, or issue fees for moving violations up to $500 that, if unpaid, lead to the suspension or revocation of drivers licenses. In Durham, though, Deberry has taken to asking judges to consider a person’s ability to pay when weighing whether or not to issue fees and many have been amenable.

The biggest challenges they’ve faced, though, are communicating to people whose licenses have been restored and state-imposed reinstatement fees. In most instances, the DEAR program has only the address associated with the original court filing, some as old as the mid 1980s, as a way to contact people. The low-income people who are disproportionately impacted by these fees also tend to move more frequently. For those who are reached, they then have to contend with a $70 reinstatement fee and a potential $50 service fee from the state in order to actually get their license back. To address the communication barrier, the DEAR program has set up a website, secondchancedriving.org, where residents can go to see if their suspension has been removed as a result of the program.

Beyond Durham, there’s a national movement to end driver’s license suspensions for those unable to pay.

Free to Drive is a national campaign based on the assertion that poverty shouldn’t be a determining factor in who is and isn’t able to drive. The organization takes a state-level policy approach to accomplishing license reinstatements, making it easy for people across the country to not only see where their state stands on fee-related suspensions but what (if anything) is in the works to address it.

“We’ve decided this is our issue, we want to work toward the elimination of debt-based driver’s license suspensions,” says Priya Sarathy Jones, who leads the Free to Drive campaign as an extension of her work as a national policy director with the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “We came together to launch a platform that shows what’s happened across the country, what laws are in place, …the impact this is having, and a central place that folks can go to understand the issue,” she says.

Beyond the awareness building of the campaign, Free to Drive takes on a primary support role for states and advocates that want to reduce these barriers where they are. “They can call and say, ‘we want to introduce a bill’ and we’re able to support states where we don’t have staff in order to move the issue forward,” Sarathy Jones says.

Both Deberry and Sarathy Jones say that the suspension elimination has been a largely bi-partisan and uncontroversial issue. “It’s not really political… or seen as something where people feel the way that they feel about other issues in the criminal justice system,” Sarathy Jones says. “Because of that, you can get a diverse group of coalition members.”

This article is part of The Clean Slate, a series about how cities can use technology and policy to eliminate unjust fines, fees, and other barriers to economic mobility. The Clean Slate is generously supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.

Editor’s note: We’ve corrected the spelling of DA Satana Deberry’s name, and the month that the final purge of old records took place. We’ve also clarified whose responsibility it is to communicate with people whose licenses have been reinstated, which is DEAR, not the DA’s office.

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Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

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