How Durham Provided Legal Relief to More Than 35,000 in Two Years

In 2018, the City of Durham, NC launched an innovative new program in partnership with our Courts, District Attorney, and multiple community partners called the Durham Expunction and Restoration (DEAR) program to remove barriers to employment caused by license suspensions and criminal records.

ARTICLE | Jan 28, 2021
by Ryan Smith, Innovation and Performance Manager, City of Durham
Assistant District Attorney, now Superior Court Judge, Josephine Kerr Davis preparing paperwork to dismiss over 50,000 old traffic charges, for 35,000 residents.


In 2017, the City of Durham learned that over 45,000 Durham residents had a suspended or revoked driver’s license, that these suspensions were largely due to minor traffic violations, including unpaid traffic tickets, and did not involve DWIs, and that they disproportionately impacted communities of color.  We also learned that tens of thousands of residents had charges on their criminal records that were eligible for removal (otherwise referred to as expungement) but that still appeared on the criminal background checks.  Both driver’s license suspension and criminal records make it more difficult for otherwise qualified individuals to secure employment.  Prior to DEAR, local efforts designed to increase access to legal representation to license restoration and expungement services were only able to help a few hundred residents a year, meaning we did not have solutions that could address the large scale of the problem. 

To address the enormous need for driver’s license restoration and expungement services, the City of Durham created the DEAR program in partnership with our Courts and over a dozen community partners.  DEAR has four main components:

  • A mass relief program for suspended and revoked driving privileges.  We define “mass relief” as an approach that uses data to identify eligible persons and then provides relief without requiring the eligible persons to apply.  DEAR identified all persons with Durham County traffic charges or unpaid traffic tickets that were leading to active suspensions of driving privileges. Our District Attorney set criteria for participation in our program (charges older than two years that did not involve traffic offenses that pose a clear risk to public safety, such as DWIs).  We then developed an approach for dismissing eligible charges and unpaid traffic tickets in accordance with state laws (this could vary by state).  We developed a website ( where residents could find out if they had received relief through this program, and hired justice-involved residents to canvas neighborhoods with the highest concentration of license suspensions to raise awareness of the website and program. 
  • A new office co-located at the courthouse where persons could meet with attorneys free of charge to get assistance restoring their driving privileges or expunging charges from their criminal record. 
  • A court-referral program where public defenders and assistant district attorneys would actively identify eligible persons from their caseload and refer them to the DEAR office before they left the courthouse.
  • New technology in partnership with our local Code for America brigade that can auto-populate expunction petitions, saving attorney precious time and enabling them to assist more clients. 
  • A network of free clinics in partnership with law schools and legal service non-profits to increase access to the program and engage pro bono attorneys to help us serve more residents.


In its first two years of operation, DEAR and its partners have dismissed over 51,000 traffic charges and waived over $2.7 million in old, unpaid traffic tickets preventing 35,000 Durham residents from restoring their driving privileges.  The program has also increased the number of expunction petitions filed per year by 78%.  Aspects of DEAR are being replicated in counties and cities across NC and the United States. 

DEAR won the NC Pro Bono Project of the Year Award from the NC Bar Association and the national navigator award from Route Fifty and was recognized as a World Changing Idea Finalist by Fast Company.

DEAR Advisory Board

Lessons Learned

  • A well-intentioned program can be designed in ways that unintentionally discourage participation. An earlier attempt to help residents with suspended driver’s licenses had required people to come down to the courthouse during workhours over a few days.  The program was only able to reach a small number of people because people were wary of coming to the courthouse and because approaches like this typically require people to wait in long lines, take time off work which might be difficult, and figure out transportation and childcare.
  • Design programs that are as easy as possible to access, shifting the burden from program recipients to program administrators. As much a possible, we tried to design programs that were as easy as possible for residents to participate in and benefit from.  One way we did this was to eliminate the need to apply for relief where the law permitted this as an option. 
  • Design programs in ways that acknowledge and address existing deficits of trust. While DEAR has a presence at the courthouse, we did not want that to be the only access point for services.  In engaging the community throughout the design of DEAR, we heard time and again how many people were wary of programs located at the courthouse or government buildings, and feared they were traps.
  • Collaboration is crucial. Most of the problems we sought to address involved areas where the City had little discretion.  However, the City was able to build partnerships and a powerful coalition with those who had influence over key parts of the process, and together we were able to accomplish something none of us could have on our own.
  • Don’t forget to engage downstream stakeholders as you are designing new programs.  One group we failed to engage early enough in the process was our Clerk of Courts.  They were crucial to the program because they processed all of the paperwork generated by our mass relief program. Not engaging them early in the process ultimately slowed our process down because we had designed our initial effort with their increased workload in mind. 

For those interested in learning more about DEAR, please see the additional resources below, visit the program’s website or contact Ryan Smith, Innovation and Performance Manager for the City of Durham at

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