Durham Expunction & Reinstatement Program (DEAR)
"A drivers license may be the only opportunity you have for getting a job."
- Durham Resident
In 2017, the I-Team began researching the economic and structural barriers surrounding justice-involved Durham residents and finding solutions to overcoming these barriers. While conducting interviews with formerly incarcerated individuals and discussions with justice organizations, a common theme emerged: one of the most consistent and clear barriers for justice-involved residents is suspended and revoked driver's licenses. At the surface level, not having a driver's license can immediately bar someone from getting a job if the employer requires or prefers one. But at a deeper level, a suspension or revoked license can lead to a world of financial troubles and lengthy bureaucratic processes that are difficult to navigate.
In North Carolina, state law mandates that a license is suspended for the nonpayment of a traffic court debt. The suspension is not only indefinite, but can take place only 30 days after failure to pay. This has left more than one million North Carolina drivers with suspended licenses and few are able or even attempt to get it restored. Not only does a suspension leave people without a way to get to work or around, they can lead to a pileup of traffic violations and tickets; furthering economic burden and creating a cycle of debt, unemployment and interaction with the criminal justice system.
Driving with a revoked license is the sixth most common charge and constitutes thousands of arrests in Durham County. These charges disproportionately affect Black residents, who make up over 75% of all revoked license charges.
The goals of this project were to:
- Identify systemic barriers that hinder Justice-Involved Residents
- Examine the collateral consequences of criminal justice processes
- Increase economic opportunity and mobility for Justice-Involved Residents
- Decrease rates of recidivism and lower incarceration costs
The team began with an expansive preliminary research process to connect with justice-involved residents and other justice system stakeholders. This included:
- In-depth interviews with 21 justice-involved residents
- Three focus groups with 30 justice-involved residents; one consisting of recently returned individuals engaged in the NC Job Works reentry program, one group of teenagers in a gang diversion program, and a group of residents at a substance abuse recovery transitional home
- Interviews with 15 law enforcement officials
- Interviews with 10 judicial officials and criminal advocates
- Interviews with 15 service providers involved in the reentry process
- Interviews with 5 employers including the City of Durham and small business owners
- Participatory observation of judicial procedures and post-incarceration employment
The team also sought and analyzed data from the Durham County Jail, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, the Administrative Office of the Courts and the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles. The team found that more than 54,000 Durham residents had their licenses suspended for either failing to appear in court or not paying court fees related to traffic offenses. These cases dated back to 1987 and mostly involved people of color.
The preliminary research findings and interviews led the I-Team to focus on drivers licenses. The team’s initial conception was to set up an amnesty program that would give people a chance to have outstanding traffic charges and fines against them waived so they could get their licenses back.
Procedural Barriers: Previous amnesty efforts had limited success because of the procedural barriers applicants had to jump through– it was difficult to determine if they qualified and to show up in court to have records reviewed on a specific day. During interviews, the team learned that residents were distrustful of the courthouse and judicial process generally. Amnesty events would typically only yield 15-20 applications, with no guarantee of success.
Accessibility: The I-Team sought to make the process more accessible by enabling residents to have records reviewed without coming to court by sending a text or email directly to the team with their name and birth date. From there, the I-Team and District Attorney would find who qualified. The results were plentiful: within the first three days, nearly a thousand people had sent their information in. In total, more than 2,500 people applied.
Outreach: The team recruited a community outreach director to directly engage with local communities and neighborhoods about the program. In coordination with partnering non-profit organizations, the team was effectively able to spread the word about the initiative and get people involved who otherwise might not trust a judicial process.
The initial amnesty program helped over 500 people get their charges dropped and identified more than 2,000 charges amounting to over $260,000 of fines and fees that could be waived. The success of the amnesty pilot program prompted the team to delve further into records with the District Attorney’s Office. For the next iteration of the program, residents were not required to take the step of applying for amnesty. Over the next month, over 50,000 charges were dismissed for 35,000 people.
In November 2018, the official Durham Expunction and Restoration Program (DEAR) was created with support from the I-Team. The DEAR program works in collaboration with the court system, community actors and the local government to continue this work. The program provides legal relief from the collateral consequences of justice-involvement through pro-bono attorneys. DEAR implements a framework based on racial equity and maintains a mission to ensure underserved and justice-involved individuals receive the services guaranteed to them by law.
Why It Matters
While the I-Team has since transitioned away from the program, DEAR continues to have dramatic impacts on Durham residents. The DEAR program has dismissed $2.7 million in old traffic tickets and filed over 1,700 petitions for expungement. In 2022, the program helped clear 2,549 charges and 60 convictions from people’s criminal records.
The program has concentrated city efforts on uncovering bureaucratic practices that disproportionately affect people of color in the city and has helped create more equitable outcomes. Over 90% of those served by the program make less than $25,000 a year and 70% are people of color. By expanding the community’s capacity to expunge records and reinstate licenses, the work done will better enable justice-involved individuals to find and keep employment opportunities.
The DEAR program has provided a model for programs across the state. Since the project’s inception, similar debt relief programs have been created in 14 other North Carolina counties. The program and efforts of the City of Durham have provided a framework for other local governments to address systemic issues that can have real impacts on residents.