Criminal record expungement and license restoration: Durham, NC
- Eliminating penalties for minor offenses: Policies to reform government-levied fines and fees generally focus on reducing or eliminating financial penalties for minor offenses, such as parking tickets, overdue fees at libraries, or "quality of life" offenses, like loitering.
- Reform with a racial equity lens: Efforts to reduce the impact of government-levied fines and fees are generally rooted in the recognition that outstanding financial penalties for minor offenses can create significant barriers to upward economic mobility and general well-being. Individuals with suspended driver's licenses often struggle to get to work, and outstanding government debt can impact individuals' ability to secure housing. In many instances, efforts to reform government-levied fines and fees are concentrated on offenses that affect residents with low incomes and/or communities of color.
- Waiving existing debt: Reform initiatives often include large-scale waiving of existing debt , which often enables the restoration of voting rights, driver's licenses, library membership, and more.
- Expunging and dismissing minor offenses: As part of broader fines and fees reform, some jurisdictions help residents expunge their criminal records for past offenses; similarly, ongoing cases may be dismissed.
Internal evaluations from two government-levied fines and fees reform efforts found programs were effective in reducing debt, expunging criminal records, and restoring drivers licenses and library cards.
Internal evaluations from San Francisco’s Financial Justice Project found the initiative waived $32 million in criminal justice debt for 21,000 residents, while also lifting holds on 88,000 driver's licenses and renewing access to 17,000 library cards.
An internal evaluation of the Durham DEAR program increased criminal record expunction by 59 percent, waived $2.7 million in traffic-related fines and fees debt for 11,000+ residents, and dismissed charges for minor offenses for 35,000 residents.
Results and accomplishments
in traffic-related fines and fees debt waived for over 11,000 residents
charges for minor offenses dismissed for 35,000 residents
increase in petitions filed for criminal record expunction after DEAR's first year of operations
- Legal relief provided to tens of thousands of residents: Since launching in the fall of 2018, Durham Expunction and Restoration (DEAR) program waived approximately $2.7 million in fines and fees for over 11,000 low-income residents. It has also dismissed over 50,000 charges for minor offenses for approximately 35,000 people.
- Providing criminal record expungements at unprecedented scale: In its first year of operations, DEAR filed more petitions for criminal record expungements than all legal providers combined in the previous year. Between 2018 and 2019, the number of expungement petitions filed grew by 59%, an increase largely attributable to DEAR.
- Establishing a sustainable model for large-scale legal relief: In bringing together partners across city government, local and state court systems, non-profit and community groups, and the local legal community, DEAR has galvanized an ecosystem of actors capable of marshaling legal services at unprecedented scale to disadvantaged Durham residents.
- Replication of DEAR model across North Carolina: Since its launch, DEAR has exerted a significant influence on license restoration and expungement work across North Carolina. The North Carolina Justice Center, a key partner to DEAR, has helped implement similar models in 10 other counties across the state. DEAR’s successes also helped enable the passing of the Second Chance Act, a state law that has expanded eligibility for criminal record expungement.
- Creating better access to legal relief services and information across the state: In partnership with Code for Durham, DEAR developed a web-based tool that allows attorneys to file petitions electronically for eligible clients. This saves a significant amount of time for attorneys and allows staff and volunteers to serve more clients. In partnership with Code the Dream, DEAR also created a website that enables residents to see if they have received legal relief. Several counties across North Carolina now use this same platform.
In Durham, individuals with criminal records or suspended driver’s licenses faced significant barriers to economic opportunity. Often, individuals’ criminal records were from dismissed charges, not guilty verdicts, or minor offenses. Similarly, many license suspensions were from minor violations, like unpaid traffic tickets. Regardless, individuals with criminal records faced barriers finding employment or housing, and those without a driver’s license often struggled to access work, school, and other services.
In 2018, leaders in city government, the justice system, and other members of the legal and nonprofit communities created the Durham Expunction and Restoration Program (DEAR). DEAR facilitated the statutory changes required to make individuals with minor offenses eligible for expungement and built agreements to waive millions of dollars in fines and fees that led to license suspensions. The initiative also coordinated the local legal community to provide pro-bono legal services to aid those with criminal records in navigating the process.
Keys to the program’s success included using data to demonstrate the problem and build momentum for change; interviewing individuals with prior justice system involvement to understand the need for change; buy-in from the District Attorney, which enabled license restoration and the expunction of minor offenses; leadership from City Hall to convene key stakeholders; and collaboration across the legal community, which resulted in considerable capacity to provide legal assistance and advocate for reform.
Challenges faced by the program included acquiring data from the DMV and state courts, notifying individuals of legal relief, addressing the “last mile” for driver’s license restoration, and managing the administrative burden on court clerks.
What was the challenge?
- Criminal records severely limit opportunity: In Durham, NC, individuals with criminal records faced significant barriers to economic opportunity, struggling in particular to find employment and stable housing. These criminal records--often for dismissed charges or not guilty verdicts--were frequently for minor offenses and/or stemming from incidents many years prior.
- Suspended driver’s licenses create barriers: Many Durham residents were also burdened by having suspended driver’s licenses. Many of these suspensions were the result of minor violations, like unpaid traffic tickets or failing to appear in traffic court. Without the ability to legally drive, these individuals struggled to access work, school, medical care, and other essential services.
- Communities of color disproportionately affected: After obtaining county-wide data, leaders in Durham discovered that there were about 40,000 active license suspensions in Durham County, and that 80% of those suspensions applied to people of color.
- Availability of legal relief fails to meet demand: While pro bono legal services from a variety of non-profit providers were able to serve some low-income clients, these services were not coordinated and did not meet the scale of demand for relief.
What was the solution?
- Providing mass legal relief and individualized legal services at scale: Recognizing the severe impact that criminal records and suspended driver’s licenses were having on low-income residents’ economic opportunity, leaders in Durham sought to expunge criminal records for minor offenses and lift license suspensions for tens of thousands of residents. To provide these services, leaders in city government, the justice system, and other members of the legal and nonprofit communities created the Durham Expunction and Restoration Program (DEAR).
- Statutory changes and debt forgiveness enable mass relief: To enable mass legal relief on criminal records, the District Attorney’s office vastly expanded the number of minor charges that were eligible for expungement. For driver’s license restoration, court system actors agreed to waive millions in fines and fees for minor violations, which were a major contributor to license suspensions.
- Collaboration across city government, the court system, and the broader legal community: Establishing DEAR and providing mass legal relief was accomplished through a collaborative effort including the City of Durham’s Innovation Team (I-Team), the Durham County District Attorney’s Office, and many actors across the county court system. The legal community of Durham, including Legal Aid of North Carolina, the local Bar Association, the North Carolina Central University School School of Law, and Duke University School of Law provided a robust pipeline of attorneys that were able to provide pro-bono, individualized legal services.
What factors drove success?
- Interviewing individuals with prior justice system involvement: To better understand how to improve outcomes for individuals with prior justice system involvement, Durham’s Innovation Team interviewed over 100 individuals with lived experience. This process revealed how severely driver’s license suspension impacted economic mobility.
- Using data to spark action: Records of suspended driver’s licenses, collected from Durham’s Department of Motor Vehicles, revealed the pervasiveness of the issue and created greater urgency for reform. And individualized criminal records data from the state justice system has allowed the DEAR initiative to provide one-on-one relief to hundreds of residents.
- Receiving buy-in from the District Attorney: The ability to restore driver’s licenses and provide expunctions for minor offenses would not have been possible without buy-in from the District Attorney’s office, which holds the legal authority to reinstate license eligibility and expunge records. Collaboration between the District Attorney’s office and a wide range of partners led to a significant expansion in the number of offenses which became eligible for expunction.
- Leveraging the convening power of City Hall: While the City of Durham held little legal authority to lift license suspensions or expunge criminal records, it played a critical role in creating a vision of reform, convening partners, coordinating action, and navigating various obstacles along the way.
- Galvanizing unprecedented collaboration across the legal community: To provide individuals with one-on-one legal services, DEAR has worked closely with Durham Legal Aid, the North Carolina Central University School of Law, the Duke University School of Law, and the Durham County Bar Association. These schools and organizations coordinate pro bono legal assistance, organize mass relief clinics, and advocate for further reform.
What were the major obstacles?
- Acquiring data from the DMV and state courts: The DEAR initiative encountered resistance at both the state and local level in seeking data on driver’s license suspensions and individualized criminal records.
- Notifying individuals of legal relief: Despite wide outreach and communications efforts, DEAR has struggled to notify a large number of individuals whose license suspensions have been lifted or criminal records expunged as part of mass relief efforts.
- Addressing the “last mile” for driver’s license restoration: DEAR has had difficulty ensuring that individuals whose license suspensions have been lifted are able to access the DMV, retake driver’s tests, and reinstate their licenses.
- Managing administrative burdens on court clerks: In filing for large-scale legal relief, DEAR massively increased the amount of administrative work for the county’s legal clerks. Soon after the initiative began, these individuals were overwhelmed, leading to some tension among partners.
Durham’s I-Team, created with a three year grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, was immediately tasked by then-Mayor Bill Bell to find ways to increase economic opportunities for individuals with previous involvement with the justice system. Led by Ryan Smith, the I-Team spent the summer and fall learning about the barriers that justice-involved individuals face. Working with community-based partners, the I-Team interviewed over 100 individuals and discovered that driver’s license suspensions were creating significant burdens.
Durham’s I-Team and the North Carolina Justice Center received license suspension data from the Durham DMV which revealed that over 40,000 residents had an active license suspension, and that 80% of individuals with license suspensions are people of color. The quantity of and racial disparities in license suspensions served as powerful leverage in making the case for reform
After receiving data from the Durham DMV, Durham’s I-Team met with the District Attorney’s office, then led by District Attorney Roger Echols. Echols was supportive of pursuing larger scale license restoration and agreed to partner with the I-Team. Then-Assistant District Attorney Josephine Kerr-Davis became the DA Office’s project lead.
Drawing lessons from previous “amnesty day” attempts conducted by the DA’s Office, the I-Team hosted a two-week amnesty drive, conducted entirely by text message and email. 2,500 charges are dismissed for 500 individuals, but the process is administratively burdensome.
Durham County Judge Amanda Maris convened local justice system and advocacy leaders, aiming to create a court-referral based expunction program to clear criminal records for minor offenses. As momentum grew, the Advisory Board joined with the I-Team- and DA-led license restoration program, officially becoming the Durham Expunction and Restoration program (DEAR).The DEAR Advisory Board met monthly to design the program, determine eligibility criteria for legal relief, develop outreach strategy, etc.
The I-Team brought forward the funding proposal to City Council, seeking greater coordinating capacity and several staff attorneys to provide in-person legal relief. City Council approved of the proposal, providing DEAR with approximately $250,000 for its first year.
The program’s first expunction clinic was held in October 2018, with several other clinics held throughout the fall and winter. Clinics were largely held in neighborhoods with large numbers of residents with prior justice system involvement, often in churches or community centers.
DEAR spent weeks prepping dismissal motions for charges tied to driver’s license suspensions. Within three months, Durham courts processed the motions, dismissing 50,000 charges connected to 30,000 license suspensions.
Running on a platform of criminal justice reform, Satana Deberry, an affordable housing and community development advocate, is elected District Attorney. She becomes a vocal champion of DEAR’s work, elevating the program across Durham and drawing greater attention to the importance of expunctions and license restoration.
After months of biweekly special sessions of court, DEAR successfully works through its entire initial portfolio of fines and fees eligible for dismissal. In total, the initiative waived $2.7 million in fines and fees for over 11,000 individuals, restoring driver’s license eligibility.
How did leaders confront the problem?
- Advocates increasingly push for relief on fines and fees: For several years, advocacy groups like the North Carolina Justice Center had pushed for reform in the justice system, with a particular focus on providing relief from government-levied fines and fees.
- Mayor insists on new strategies to boost opportunity: When Durham’s I-Team was created, Durham Mayor Bill Bell immediately charged it with finding ways to improve economic mobility for individuals with prior involvement with the justice system. A major community engagement effort revealed suspended driver’s licenses as a significant barrier to opportunity, and collaboration was commenced with the DA’s office.
- Legal community increasingly focuses on expunctions: Working with local advocates, leaders in the Durham legal community increasingly recognized the damage that longstanding criminal records were having on residents’ economic prospects. Judge Amanda Maris and other legal system leaders began exploring the creation of a court-referral expunction program, seeking to coordinate pro bono legal services in a way that served significantly more Durham residents.
- License restoration and expunction programs join forces: With license restoration work already underway, leaders in the legal community recognized the complementarity of that effort with their early-stage expunction work. The two initiatives combine, creating the Durham Expunction and Restoration Program (DEAR).
How was the strategy designed?
- DEAR Advisory Committee meets monthly: Starting in early 2018, the DEAR Advisory Committee began meeting on a monthly basis, discussing various aspects of program design. Deliberation topics included: what legal services should be provided, what kind of staffing will be needed, how filing and claims processing issues should be handled, and how often clinics should occur, among others.
- Several statutory changes enable mass relief: Working with the DEAR Advisory Council, the District Attorney’s office significantly expanded eligibility criteria for license restoration and expunction. Charges or convictions had to be over two years old, and must not have endangered or harmed others (DUIs, fleeing arrest, etc. are not eligible for expunction.) Statutory changes also enabled the District Attorney’s office to bring a much higher volume of claims to court.
- Individualized data makes one-on-one expunctions possible: To process individual expunction claims, DEAR worked with the Chief Administrative Officer of the North Carolina state court system to get individualized criminal records data. This enabled DEAR staff and volunteers to immediately determine expunction eligibility when meeting with clients.
- Multiple pathways to legal relief and information: The DEAR Advisory Board recognized that residents would need different kinds of legal services depending on their circumstances. Mass relief efforts were designed to waive debt or expunge certain charges at scale, while one-on-one legal services would help clients identify eligibility and file claims for expunction. The decision to place the DEAR office in the county courthouse enabled individuals to easily access legal services after appearing in court.
How was the approach funded?
- An initial grant creates new innovation capacity: Durham’s I-Team, the spark behind the driver’s license restoration effort, was initially funded by a three year, $1.2 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. The office is now part of the city’s Office of Performance and Innovation.
- Funding from City Council creates DEAR: In mid-2018, once DEAR had begun to establish momentum, Durham’s City Council provided around $250,000 to help the initiative hire several staff. These staff provided DEAR with in-house attorneys and greater coordination capacity.
- Ongoing funding to administer DEAR: After the three-year grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies for Durham’s I-Team ended, the city entered into a contract with Legal Aid of North Carolina and the North Carolina Justice Center to administer the DEAR program. The city allocated $230,000 to DEAR in FY20.
How was the plan implemented?
- Statutory changes go into effect, expunction effort begins: In October 2018, once statutory changes had increased the number of charges eligible for expungement, DEAR began hosting legal clinics, marshaling pro bono legal assistance from across the local legal community. These clinics were held in neighborhoods, often occurring in churches, community centers, or other trusted spaces.
- Website is created to inform residents of legal status: DEAR created a website, secondchancedriving.org, that allowed individuals to see if their traffic debt had been waived, driving-related charges had been dismissed, and if their license suspensions had been lifted.
- DEAR office opens in county courthouse: As DEAR began operations, it opened its office in the Durham County Courthouse, enabling it to serve residents directly after they appear in court. After a not guilty verdict is delivered or charges are dismissed, the attorney representing the District Attorney’s office provides eligible defendants with a referral card to DEAR.
- First wave of mass relief is processed: Following the initial set of expungement clinics, DEAR staff spent several weeks preparing motions to dismiss nearly 50,000 charges for 35,000 people. Durham County Courts are able to process these motions in a single weekend.
- Special sessions of court address expunctions: Following the successful mass relief effort, DEAR worked with the county court system to begin holding special sessions of court to address criminal record expunctions. The special sessions were held approximately every other week, with judges able to preside over 300-500 cases per session. By October 2020, the court system had worked through DEAR’s initial caseload, ultimately waiving over $2.7 million in court-related debt for more than 11,000 people.
How was the approach measured and refined?
- Challenges in tracking “last mile” data: While DEAR has extensive data on residents whose driver’s license suspensions have been lifted, it has significantly less ability to track how many individuals take the necessary steps to reinstate their driver’s license. The ability to measure the number of individuals who have successfully restored their driver’s licenses has become a priority for the initiative.
- Success in Durham leads to statewide action: Following DEAR’s successful implementation in Durham, approximately ten counties across the state of North Carolina have implemented similar approaches to debt relief. Three counties (Orange, Forsyth, and Blanchard) have also initiated larger-scale criminal record expungement efforts modeled on DEAR.
- DEAR influences North Carolina Second Chance Act: Following an advocacy campaign informed by DEAR’s successes, the state of North Carolina passed the Second Chance Act, which significantly expanded eligibility for criminal record expungement. Starting in December of 2021, eligible offenses will be automatically expunged statewide.
- Administration of DEAR transferred to Legal Aid and NC Justice Center: Following the conclusion of the three year Bloomberg Philanthropies I-Team grant, administration of DEAR was transferred from the Durham I-Team to the Durham office of Legal Aid of North Carolina and the North Carolina Justice Center. The initiative’s full-time staff continues to be housed in the Durham County Courthouse, and it continues to receive funding from the City of Durham.
Results for America would like to thank the following individuals for their help in the completion of this case study: Ryan Smith of the City of Durham; Satana Deberry, Durham County District Attorney; Gina Reyman and Lauren Robins of Legal Aid of North Carolina; Laura Holland of the NC Justice Center; and Dionne Gonder-Stanley of the North Carolina Central University School of Law.