DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- A collaborative effort between the city of Durham, Durham County District Attorney's Office, local law schools and social justice organizations has helped extend court debt relief to 11,000 residents with suspended licenses.
The Durham Expunction and Restoration (DEAR) Program, which has been in place the past two years, is aimed at assisting individuals who are unable to pay fees associated with traffic infractions.
"It was important to make sure that everybody in our community has an opportunity to thrive, and that we don't use small things like traffic offenses to really create barriers to economic opportunity," said District Attorney Satana Deberry.
An October 2018 City of Durham analysis found one in five adults had a revoked or suspended license due to a failure to pay court costs or attend traffic court. In an area with limited public transportation options, an inability to drive creates several obstacles.
"They often don't live in neighborhoods that are walkable. So you need a driver's license to get groceries, you need a driver's license to go to work. You need a driver's license to get your kids back and forth to extracurricular activities. You need a driver's license to take advantage of your own educational opportunities," Deberry said.
In total, DEAR extended court debt relief to 11,084 people connected to 14,629 traffic cases, equaling a total of $2.7 million in fines.
Laura Holland, a staff attorney with the North Carolina Justice Center, worked with clients who were disadvantaged by suspended licenses.
"There is a large number of people, who mostly are minorities, who can't afford to pay, who don't have an extra $200 lying around, an extra $400 lying around," said Holland.
She said courts often don't take a person's financial position into account.
"Most of the people who (have their driving privileges) suspended under this law are poor. They can't pay, they just don't have the money to pay. I've seen people who are put in a position where it's a rock or a hard place. People have told me because they needed to support their family and get around, they just won't pay their rent this month so they can pay their traffic ticket. I've had one client who was enrolled in school to better herself, but she said she wasn't going to pay her tuition so she could pay the $300 traffic ticket that was assessed against her. This isn't a matter of not wanting to pay, because most people don't want their drivers licenses suspended, and they would do whatever they can to prevent that from happening," said Holland.
Individuals were eligible for the program if they had their licenses suspended at least two years due to non-payment of fees.
"This was a really data-intensive project. So first off all, we learned before we even started the project, if somebody hasn't paid their fines and fees in two years, they probably won't pay them--that they're not paying them not because they don't want to comply, but because they can't comply," said Deberry.
Infractions such as DUI, fleeing arrest, or incidents that involve property damage or bodily injury were not eligible for the program. The waiving of fees does not absolve a person of the charges themselves or non-financial penalties associated with it, such as points on their license.
"Justice coupled with mercy defines the pinnacle of a criminal justice system that works for all," said Superior Court Judge Josephine Kerr Davis, who helped launch the DEAR Program and now serves as co-chair of its advisory board, as part of a written statement from the city. "From 2017, when I worked with others to sow the first seeds of restoration until now as a Superior Court judge, this journey has been remarkable. Providing equal access to thousands of, and serving as a model for other court systems across the State, is indicative of how like-minded justice pursuers reimagine equity and fairness."