Durham, let’s wipe the slate clean – Katie Mgongolwa

Katie Mgongolwa
Katie Mgongolwa

As a high school teacher, I have learned that sometimes everybody needs a fresh start. We recently started our second semester, and with that comes a new chance at improving grades, developing habits, and engaging students.

More than once I’ve told a struggling student that we’re wiping the slate clean and seen the relief wash over their face. Sometimes it takes a bit of probing to understand the barriers preventing them from succeeding in school. But fresh starts are the reason New Year’s resolutions are so big – we all are waiting for someone to give us permission to start anew, without old baggage, mistakes, or bad luck weighing us down. The past doesn’t suddenly disappear, but with those fresh starts come hope and determination. Sometimes they are the step someone needed to move up. They are a gift.

Recently, I was talking with my friend Josephine Davis, who works in the district attorney’s office. Boy, does she know something about this! She introduced me to the Durham Driver Amnesty program, which worked to dismiss charges and waive fees/fines for people in Durham County who’d had suspended or revoked licenses for at least 18 months. The program ran this past November.

But how many people could this really help? My curiosity led me to Ryan Smith, the project manager for Durham’s Innovation Team, which spearheaded the project with the DA’s office. The “I-Team” knew they wanted to help justice-involved folks in Durham. They interviewed people with criminal records: some had been out for a decade, some had been out for a few months, some were still in the Durham County Jail.

“One thing we heard consistently that wasn’t really on my radar was how hard it was to get a license back,” Ryan said. Many folks went to court for every charge but couldn’t afford the fines; others had charges they didn’t know about that resurfaced after leaving prison, providing an unforeseen barrier to reintegrating. Licenses are automatically suspended when people fail to appear in court or fail to pay traffic fines.

The I-Team introduced the idea of having people participate through email and cell phones after realizing a lot of people struggled to get off work or had reservations about coming to the courthouse. “The step of coming down to the courthouse is a significant barrier,” Ryan explained. “Some residents have a lot of distrust around law enforcement and the court system. The last thing they want to do is re-engage with parts of the system that they don’t trust, especially if they just got out of prison, especially if they’re worried they just might get in more trouble.”

Chuck Manning, the I-Team community outreach organizer, agreed: “Needless to say, justice-involved residents are reluctant to come to the courthouse, for several reasons,” describing it as a “hurdle”. Josephine described how they simplified the process. noting, “People could send an email or text to city to say, ‘I’m not sure if I qualify or not, but here’s my name and date of birth’. And we did the legwork for them.” She called it “a labor of love”- and indeed it took a lot of both to make it happen.

‘Likely you know someone’

Make no mistake: driver’s licenses are crucial. Durham, despite its decent bus system, is still designed for cars. But the real impact of losing a license is employment: the I-Team discovered that 65 percent of the job classifications in Durham’s city government require a driver’s license as a minimum requirement. Yet over 46,000 folks in Durham County (that’s 1 in 6 adults) have a suspended or revoked license. Add on to that, three-fourths of those folks are black or Hispanic, and Durham has a crisis.

“There is no one untouched by it,” Ryan said. “It’s likely you know someone. We can’t be a community where everyone has an opportunity to flourish without addressing this issue. We know employment is critical. The inability to get a job leads to higher recidivism rate. People go in and out of jail because of driving licenses. It unnecessarily takes up room in jail, ties up the court system- these costs are born by all of us.”

It made me wonder about my students and their families, about my friends and neighbors. What families are bearing this silent burden?

What is often hidden is the fact that it’s a poverty issue; Josephine said, “People have been revoked for months or years, so they have been punished. They shouldn’t be further punished because of their inability to pay.” Ryan reasoned, “If you haven’t driven in over a year and half, you’ve paid a price already.”

The program deemed eligibility by prioritizing safe roads. Any charges for unsafe activities, like driving with a DWI, were ineligible for the program. As Josephine aptly put it, “The big picture is, if I get in a car accident, I want them to be properly licensed and have insurance.” District Attorney Roger Echols said, “We’re all better off if people are driving with a license and with insurance,” describing losing a license as “a snowball effect”.

Free legal clinics coming up

Chuck spread the word by going door-to-door with fliers and taking advantage of social media. He knew justice-involved folks that needed the program and worked for 14 days straight to reach as many people possible before the deadline. The I-Team knew they were on to something when 400 texts poured in the first night.

In the end, 2200 people applied; 793 ended up eligible. Over 2,000 charges were dismissed; they are in process of working with pro bono attorneys to get fees waived. One man had 20 charges dismissed; I wondered at the relief he must have felt. It was clear how badly people wanted to take responsibility to get their licenses back, but the costs had been too high a barrier. As Echols explained, the program “allows people an increased quality of life if they’re able to drive when they weren’t able to do things for themselves and their families.”

And in the end, people still have to pay the $75 driver’s license restoration fee at the DMV, which may hinder many. But any lawyers interested in getting involved could help with their free legal clinics, which are coming up in March and April. Anyone who likes the program can help by electing or supporting judges who use their discretion to waive fees and dismiss charges in a way that helps reduces barriers for the community.

This amnesty program makes me love Durham, and it’s a great example to share with my students who write research papers about problem-solving. They investigate community or global issues that interest them – from dangerous intersections to pollution issues – and learn how to solve the problem (or, at least, make productive suggestions and learn what resources are at their disposal).

Durham needs changemakers: people who understand issues that are impacting their community, and actively work to solve them. And one of the parts I love the most is that, even in a somewhat contentious election cycle this past November, a dozen local groups banded together to make the amnesty program happen: Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, People’s Alliance, SONG, El Centro Hispano, the DA’s office, the City of Durham, Durham Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, Men and Women of Vision, and the NC Justice Center, just to name a few. It shows the power of a common goal, and how many people are just waiting for a chance.

Katie Mgongolwa is a high school English teacher in Durham.