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Americans with no license face barriers to employment and housing

Residents in Durham, North Carolina, face significant challenges in securing employment and housing due to criminal records or a suspended license.
Posted at 3:48 PM, Nov 23, 2023

Fill out a work application, and you'll often be asked for a driver's license number. An apartment application? Often the same question.

But what if you don't have a license? Whether you think it's a right or a privilege, for many, a driver's license means one thing: opportunity.

Opportunities to work; Opportunities to care for family; Opportunities to move freely through society.

It's why people like Ryan Smith spend thousands of hours compiling data. Data that would show cities like Durham, North Carolina, have a problem that can be solved with a little teamwork—with that, the Durham Expunction and Restoration Program, or DEAR program, was born.

"I think one of the things that we tried to do in deer is always ask ourselves, where does the burden sit? And can we shift that burden to [the] government and away from people who were seeking to provide relief to?" Smith said.

The data Smith and his team compiled showed that 65% of city jobs require you to have a driver's license. That same study showed that 80% of people who had suspended licenses were people of color. Durham is not alone.

In the United States, half of the states continue to suspend, revoke, or deny the renewal of driver's licenses due to unpaid traffic, toll, misdemeanor, and felony fines and fees. This policy disproportionately affects millions of individuals who face challenges in their daily lives because they cannot afford these financial obligations or miss court hearings. As a consequence, many people are burdened with debt-related driving restrictions, hindering their ability to navigate daily life.

North Carolina is not one of those states.

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District Attorney Satana Deberry was among those who tirelessly spent thousands of hours going through documents.

"People of color tend to have less income. They again tend to live in communities that have a stronger police presence. And they often can't pay the fines and fees that come along with having minor traffic offenses," Deberry said.

This is why, in 2019, DEAR had more than 70,000 cases dismissed. These cases were made up of people who had lost their licenses for failure to pay a traffic ticket for minor moving violations. This amounted to more than $2.7 million in unpaid fines and court fees.

It involved more than 11,000 residents of Durham. Once explained to residents of Durham, the pushback was minimal.

"It is a public safety issue for everybody in our community. If you don't have a driver's license and you're still driving because then you can't get insurance, and if you're in a car accident, you can't get that paid for," Deberry said.

Since 2019, Smith says he hears from residents time and time again about real benefits.

He shared one man's story after he had his license reinstated: "The father was in tears that the relief that he had received, and he told a story, he said. I mean, it had been, you know, over a decade since he had not had a license, but he was a single father with five children. He drove to work every day. He said every day he drove to work without a license. He was just constantly stressed, always looking behind him, always afraid he was going to get pulled over."

DEAR is now a mainstay within the Durham community, continuing to help those who have lost their way. It's a program based on second chances. It's a program based on opportunities for those who may have lost hope. It's Deberry's hope that every community can replicate DEAR and spread opportunity across America.

"There are small interventions that have big impact in every community. Making sure people can get [a] driver's license. It's one of those things," Deberry said.