Durham’s Equity-Driven Push to Restore Driver’s Licenses — and Transform Lives

2021 Certification Level: Silver

By Ambreen Ali

When officials in Durham, North Carolina, began conducting listening sessions with formerly incarcerated residents about the challenges they faced years later, a surprising theme emerged. Many people talked about having lost their driver’s licenses for minor moving violations or unpaid traffic tickets — and having suffered for years, even decades, as a result.

“Their stories weren’t just about transportation challenges,” says Ryan Smith, a former innovation team project manager with the City of Durham who is now its director of community safety. “People faced real barriers to employment.”

The conversations prompted his team to dig into data. From the Department of Motor Vehicles, they learned that 80% of revoked licenses belonged to Black and Latinx residents. The average duration of suspension? Sixteen years. A review of City of Durham jobs revealed that 60% of positions required a driver’s license. The racial and economic inequities were clear.

The innovation team’s data, paired with residents’ stories of stress and pain, ultimately led to the 2017 launch of the Durham Expunction and Restoration (DEAR) program. It brings city and court system staff together with community members to restore driver’s licenses and remove systemic barriers individuals face while trying to provide for themselves and their families. To date, the program has successfully dismissed over 100,000 traffic charges and offered $2.7 million in debt relief, helping tens of thousands of residents.

A meeting of DEAR’s advisory board. Image courtesy of City of Durham.

It’s a prime example of how a collaborative effort targeting a specific problem — and a commitment to foundational data-driven practices such as evaluations — can transform the lives of individual residents. “The staggering size of the challenge and the significant impact the status quo was having on residents made it easy for our elected leaders to rally behind this,” Smith says.

Simplified Process, Greater Impact

After the listening sessions and data analysis, the first thing Smith and his team did was meet with the local district attorney (DA) to share what they had learned. It turned out that the DA’s office had previously held an amnesty event to dismiss old charges related to driver’s license suspensions, but that turnout had been poor.

Once again, stakeholder outreach with formerly incarcerated residents proved valuable: During listening sessions, Smith and his colleagues learned that residents were distrustful of the courthouse and were not inclined to come spend a day in line without any guarantee of relief or assistance.

A simpler approach to dismissing old traffic charges and unpaid fines was clearly needed. After a review, Smith’s team determined that all the DA’s office needed for expunction and license restoration was an individual’s name and date of birth. For two weeks in October 2017, the team piloted a driver’s license amnesty program that only required individuals to text or email that information to Smith’s team. News about the program went viral among residents.

A parking garage in Durham. Image courtesy of City of Durham.

Within a few days, more than 2,500 people had reached out. Many of them were ineligible for relief, but over 500 individuals ended up getting over 2,000 old charges waived. One man was a single father with four children who had lost his license over two decades earlier. The situation persisted because he was unable to pay the $900 fee an attorney had requested to restore his license. For this resident, the daily commute to work was an exercise in constant stress, as he worried about being pulled over.

A simple text message ultimately solved the problem.

The amnesty program pilot was a clear success, but it also prompted the team to ask a basic question: Why should residents even have to apply at all? “Every step you put in a process, you’re going to lose people,” Smith says.

His team asked the administrative office of the courts to pull data on all individuals who had suspended licenses because they had failed to appear in court or pay a ticket. The team then worked closely with the DA’s office to review data and apply eligibility criteria. Within a month, the DA was able to dismiss over 50,000 charges for 35,000 people. For cases with fines, a judge had to waive the charges — an onerous task that the innovation team decided to spread out over 18 months, tackling a few hundred cases each week.

Today, in partnership with the court system, the DEAR program continues to assist eligible residents on an ongoing basis. Its impact goes beyond Durham: The program is being replicated across North Carolina. A website DEAR created in partnership with a few statewide nonprofit organizations allows any North Carolina resident to type in their name and find out if they are eligible for relief.

Building Momentum

As part of its commitment to innovation and data-driven decision-making, the City of Durham is evaluating the impact of policies and programs. For example, DEAR is working with Duke University to learn how expunction has changed the lives of residents. City staff are working with the state government to obtain DMV data showing whether residents who had charges dismissed were able to actually get their licenses back. The larger goal is to match that information with state earnings data, to understand the economic impact of expunction and license restoration.

In Durham’s government, DEAR has become proof of concept for data-led innovation and the power of bringing together “financial justice and racial equity,” says Erin Parish, a design strategist with the City. She has helped identify other areas of potential, including disparities in how parking tickets and related fees affect residents.

Last year, a city audit revealed that parking tickets were one of the top fines levied by the City that places a burden on residents. A subsequent data analysis of 60,000 parking ticket records revealed that, while tickets were distributed evenly across race and income, late fees and unpaid tickets were disproportionately concentrated among residents from the poorest census blocks and those of color.

As a result, the City tested a free-parking initiative for downtown workers from May to October this year. Parish says the pilot was primarily to see “how it looks when we take a different approach.” To address racial and economic inequities, her team has proposed reform measures including waiving late fees for low-income residents and creating interest-free payment plans.

Other efforts are planned — more evidence that a culture of data-driven innovation, with a particular focus on equity issues, is taking root in Durham.

“We want to bring racial equity into other spaces, such as capital improvement work, which is big money,” Parish says. “There’s a convergence of racial justice work that’s long overdue.”

Ambreen Ali is a freelance writer and editor based in New Jersey. She writes about technology and immigration, among other topics, and her work has been published in The Washington Post, Bloomberg, AFP, The Wire and Seattle Magazine.

As a member of the nationwide What Works Cities (WWC) network, the City of Durham has received technical assistance from one of WWC’s expert partners to strengthen data-driven governance capacities. Through its City Solutions work, What Works Cities partnered with the City of Durham’s Innovation Team to highlight the work of the DEAR program for cities interested in developing a similar program for their own communities. The City was also selected to participate in WWC’s City Budgeting for Equity & Recovery program.

Durham is one of 33 cities to achieve 2021 What Works Cities Certification, the national standard of excellence for well-managed, data-driven local government. Read stories from other certified cities here.

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