Superior Court Judge Josephine Kerr Davis

Nearly lost amidst the election hoopla and anxiety was the Durham County District Attorney’s Office announcement this month that thousands of county residents may be eligible to have their driving privileges restored.

Durham judges are extending debt relief to more than 11,000 people whose driver’s licenses were suspended due to their inability to pay traffic fines and fees, Sarah Willets, a district attorney spokesperson said.

The initiative was launched two years ago by the Durham Expunction and Restoration Program (DEAR), while working in collaboration with the district attorney’s office, the N.C. Central and Duke law schools, along with the N.C. Justice Center, and others.

Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry praised DEAR staffers, along with county court system officials for making the program happen. Deberry described it as a matter of community well-being.

 “Having a driver’s license can transform a life,” Deberry said in the press release. “Through DEAR, thousands of people in Durham now have better access to employment, education, and other opportunities.”

DeBerry was not alone in her support and praise of the initiative.

Gina Reyman, managing attorney at Legal Aid of North Carolina, and a DEAR advisory board member described the program as a “game-changer” in the county’s work to fight poverty and systemic racism.

The initiative provides “mass debt relief to thousands of Durham residents who had no other means to regain their driving privileges,” Reyman added.

Since 2018, DEAR staffers have successfully petitioned the courts to waive about $2.7 million in fines and fees that had prevented 11,084 residents from being able to legally drive.

The most recent court session occurred on October 26 when Durham County District Court Judge Shamieka Rhinehart wrapped up a mammoth cache of cases that began in 2018 when DEAR staffers identified and started working to restore the driver’s licenses for residents who were eligible for relief.

Willets, the district attorney spokesperson, said the debt was tied to 14,629 traffic cases going back as far as 30 years, and that each individual had a suspended license for at least two years.

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel also praised the move.

“I am blown away with the success of the DEAR Program in helping thousands of people be able to get their drivers’ licenses back,” Schewel stated in the press release. “I am so proud that DEAR was born out of the work of the City of Durham’s Innovation Team and so grateful for all the partners in our court system who helped make this possible. This is racial and economic justice work of the highest order.”

The DEAR program to offer residents free legal assistance with license restoration and expunctions was launched in October 2018, after an analysis found that 20 percent of Durham adults had a revoked or suspended license due either to failure to pay court costs or attend traffic court.

The analysis determined that people of color were most impacted by the license suspensions. Officials also found that most of the cases arose from minor offenses; driving without a license or having an expired registration, and other traffic offenses that are often tied to financial hardship.

“Justice coupled with mercy defines the pinnacle of a criminal justice system that works for all,” said Durham County Superior Court Judge Josephine Kerr Davis, who helped launch the DEAR program, and serves as co-chair of its advisory board. “Providing equal access to thousands of [people], and serving as a model for other court systems across the state, is indicative of how like-minded justice pursuers re-imagine equity and fairness.”  

Durham County District Court Judge Amanda Maris helped to launch DEAR and co-chairs the advisory board with Kerr Davis. She said the program gives more people a better chance to find a job, a place to live and other opportunities throughout the car-centric county.

“Access to a driver’s license is essential to ensuring those opportunities and a lack of financial resources should never be the sole barrier to that access,” Maris stated in the press release. ”

To be eligible for relief from fines and fees, individuals must have had their driving privileges suspended for at least two years. Charges like driving while impaired and fleeing arrest are exempted from the program. 

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