Photo from Unsplash. 

Durham City Council members on Monday approved funding for a program that offers free legal assistance to help those in need restore their driving privileges, expunge a criminal record, or secure a waiver from old traffic fines. 

During the regularly scheduled virtual meeting, the council unanimously approved allocating $150,000 to Legal Aid of North Carolina to continue the initiative, known as the Durham Expunction and Restoration (DEAR) program.

Since its inception in November 2018, DEAR staffers have helped dismiss over 50,000 charges and waive over $2.7 million in old traffic tickets for more than 35,000 people in Durham County.

The program has also led to over 1,200 petitions for expungement, and its impact is most felt by the Bull City’s most economically challenged Black and Brown residents. 

A city memo made public days before the council meeting notes that 90 percent of the people served by DEAR make less than $25,000 annually and over 70 percent are people of color. 

The initiative was originally funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies and has relied on Legal Aid of North Carolina and the North Carolina Justice Center with legal services for the program. 

When the philanthropic funds ended in 2020, city officials entered into a one-year contract with Legal Aid of N.C. and N.C. Justice Center to transition the DEAR program outside of the city’s purview. DEAR’s administrative offices are currently housed with Legal Aid.

DEAR also works in collaboration with the Durham County District Attorney’s Office, NCCU and Duke law schools, among others.

The overarching goal of the program is to “increase employment opportunities for justice-involved residents by greatly expanding our community’s capacity to expunge criminal records, grant certificates of relief … and restore long term suspended driver’s licenses,” according to the memo drafted by City Manager Wanda Page, Deputy City Manager W. Bowman Ferguson, and Director of Community Safety Ryan Smith.

City leaders will rely on DEAR officials “to identify individuals eligible for expunction … or restoration of their driving privileges within the court system and community, and refer them to a network of providers within the community who will assist them with obtaining the relief needed,” according to a document reviewed by council members before Monday’s vote. 

The city memo notes that tens of thousands of Durham residents currently have records eligible for expungement or suspended driver’s licenses due to minor infractions. 

“In the past five years alone, Durham has had over 87,000 charges dismissed or adjudicated not guilty that remain on the criminal records of Durham residents who are potentially eligible to have those charges expunged and thereby increase their employability,” according to the city document.

“Our community’s ability to address both expungements and driver’s license restoration at scale is one of the crucial missing pieces to increasing employment and opportunities in housing, education and other realms of life for justice-involved residents and their families,” the city administrators added. 

Page, Ferguson, and Smith also pointed to evidence-based positive outcomes during the first two years of the program. This past year, the program relieved financial and legal burdens on over 11,000 residents “for minor moving violations that occurred, on average, 16 years ago,” city administrators reported in the memo.

The DEAR initiative has garnered praise from several criminal justice leaders in Durham County. 

In late 2020, Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry lauded the program. 

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

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

A city staff memo indicates the new round of DEAR funding will begin July 1 through June 30 of next year.

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