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Innovation Team Helps Remove License Reinstatement Barriers

By tapping human-centered design principles, the i-Team in Durham, N.C., has helped the district attorney remove 51,000 charges for 35,000 individuals, many of whom were facing restricted driving privileges.

Durham, N.C. Innovation Team
The Durham Innovation Team sifts through qualitative and quantitative data points collected from Durham residents and stakeholders.
Courtesy Photo via Durham Innovation Team
Durham, N.C., had a problem, with one in five adult residents having a suspended or revoked driver’s license. 

Moreover, 80 percent of those affected were African-American or Hispanic. Given that a driver’s license is often vital — for getting to work, school, doctors' appointments, etc. — the city feared its glut of restricted driving privileges was limiting equity in the community. Then, the Durham Innovation Team (i-Team) went to work.

By using innovation best practices and human-centered design strategies, the i-Team coordinated with the District Attorney’s Office and others to dismiss 51,000 driving-related charges for 35,000 people, none of which were high-risk offenses such as reckless driving or driving under the influence. At the same time, they asked the Durham County District Court to dismiss unpaid fines and fees for more than 15,000 old cases, all with the end goal of clearing a path to license reinstatement for more residents, ultimately fostering better equity throughout the region.

Since launching in early 2018, the project, dubbed the Durham Expunction and Restoration Program (DEAR), has been a major success, making a difference for citizens while winning accolades in the government innovation space. Now, those involved with the project are even launching an instructional sprint aimed at helping other cities duplicate the work. Interested parties can sign up here, with applications due by Dec. 10.  

With this project soon to spread to more of the country, the how and the why of it all bears a closer look.

Why Focus on Driver’s License Suspensions?

The Durham County District Attorney wanted to help the roughly 46,000 residents there barred from driving legally with some kind of relief program, but there were many hurdles. 

For one, the DA needed would-be participants to come down to the courthouse in person, a requirement that many who had suspended licenses viewed with suspicion, as if it were a possible trap. At the time, however, government officials weren’t aware of this suspicion. In fact, they weren’t entirely aware of just how life-altering it could be to have suspended or revoked driving privileges.

They were perhaps stuck in a pattern that many local governments struggle to break — they wanted to help residents but lacked the ability to do extensive research, leaving major questions about what residents needed and how to give it to them in ways that would yield results. This is where the i-Team came in. 

Durham leadership asked the i-Team, which is an entity that works with the city but is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, to identify ways to increase economic opportunities for residents with a criminal record. Ryan Smith, the i-Team’s director, recently told Government Technology that doing so meant team members conducted interviews, listening as residents expressed how restricted driving privileges had been a significant obstacle to finding even entry-level employment, since holding a license is what’s known as a green factor. What that means is that employers can use it to make hiring decisions.

“I think if we had gone at this priority area, which was improving economic opportunities for justice-involved residents, the first one-to-one correlation from that is ‘let’s create a jobs program,’” said Dr. Erin Parish, a member of the i-Team with a background in cultural anthropology. “But because we did so many different interviews with people, we saw this issue about driver’s licenses and people not having driver’s licenses being kind of as big a barrier to finding jobs as having a criminal record and, oftentimes, correlated.”

How to Help Reinstate Driver’s Licenses

With helping to reinstate driver’s licenses now coming into focus as the concrete goal, the team next went to work setting ground rules. 

There are, of course, many infractions that merit revocation or suspension. So, the team wanted to make sure they were judicious about who was eligible for relief. What they did was establish a set of rules for what charges they wanted to dismiss, including that the suspension must be at least two years old and not the result of a DUI or other major offense, such as a hit and run. 

To reach affected residents, the team first built a solution that allowed residents to simply text their names and dates of birth to the city. Text-based services is an increasingly common means of reaching underserved populations, given that it doesn’t require Internet connection or a data plan, both of which can be challenges for those on the other side of the digital divide.

From there, staff members compiled records to be used in further examination against driving records with the District Attorney’s Office. Smith said they expected around 500 people to text, email or call in to learn if they were eligible; they received about 2,500 inquiries in just a two-week period. The city was quickly able to dismiss 2,100 traffic offenses for 458 people.

But the system wasn’t perfect.

“It worked in that we had increased participation, it worked in that people had to invest two minutes of time to apply, they then had to wait several months or more to hear back, but the challenge was we had a 65 percent ineligibility rate because it was easy to apply and hard to know if they were eligible,” Smith said. “Also, I think that one of the things that surfaced was it just confirmed how much desperation and need there was for this type of relief.”

The low eligibility and the high amount of staff time both for the i-Team to compile spreadsheets and for the District Attorney’s Office to review records sent the group back to the drawing board, Smith said. The project in that early form just wasn't logistically practical. The innovation team decided to cut out the application and review process and go directly to the source: court records.

With the help of social justice organizations in the state, Smith’s team was able to access the records it needed. The i-Team was then able to review a charge, the reason for the charge and the person’s last known address. The group first tackled people charged with a failure to appear in traffic court, subsequently compiling a spreadsheet to submit to the District Attorney’s office. This is what lead to the DA dismissing 51,000 charges for 35,000 people earlier this year, he said.

“There are real challenges that we’re still trying to solve for,” Smith said. “That piece worked for how you help people who have a suspended license due to failing to appear in court. It did not help people who have an old, unpaid traffic ticket. The reason, and this goes to why reform in the justice system is difficult, is that power and discretion is divided among multiple actors.”

What Comes Next

In addition to sharing this work with other local governments, the team continues to focus on how to inform people that their driver’s license is no longer suspended or revoked, and they have broadened their scope to encompass unpaid traffic fines that bar people from legally driving. Through partnerships with local Code for America civic tech brigades, the team has launched a website where residents can check on their suspension status or apply for relief.

Brigade members also developed a tool that extrapolates data from court document PDFs to autofill expungement petitions for community legal providers, who also now offer free services for Durham residents through the public-facing component of the project, DEAR. DEAR continues to connect people with pro bono attorneys or one of its four staff lawyers for timely legal relief.

Projects like this that inspire creative, innovate and sometimes bootstrap solutions are at the heart of the grants that fund these innovation teams, said Andrea Coleman, who works in government innovation at Bloomberg Philanthropies. Coleman said Bloomberg has conducted three rounds of grant funding since the initiative launched in 2012. She said to date the organization has funded 30 i-Teams across four different countries, a group that includes Durham.

Coleman also noted that human-centered design approaches like the one applied by the Durham i-Team are a key component of this program, to such an extent that cities with i-Teams are also given human-centered design coaching. These i-Teams are well-received in city halls, so much so that Coleman said Bloomberg has found that cities often continue to invest general fund dollars to continue supporting innovation teams after the initial grants end.

This all tracks with what has become an ongoing shift for local governments across the country, who are now working to make their services better serve the public. The Durham project is perhaps a perfect example of this, helping citizens overcome a crippling issue such as having a long-suspended driver's license for something as innocuous as an unpaid traffic fine.

Patrick Groves was a staff writer for Government Technology from 2019 to 2020.
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