Most programs assisting people with long-term license suspensions make them come down to the courthouse. We piloted a new application process that allowed residents to apply by text message or email, and used a trusted messenger to take fliers advertising the program out into the community.

10 – 15% of our clients have a driver’s license.  When they lose it, it is such a killer.  That guy with a license is gold when it comes to finding work.
— Durham service provider

Initiative description

During the first two weeks of November, the City of Durham partnered with the District Attorney’s Office to run a pilot program to assist low-income residents whose driver license had been suspended for more than 18 months for Durham County charges that did not involve DWIs. Read below to learn more about the prototype, what we accomplished and learned, and how we plan to build on this work in the year ahead.


Please note, this program is not currently accepting applications.  If you have any upcoming traffic court dates, you must attend them. If you would like to find out when the application process re-opens, please fill out the form below and we will email you with updates.

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Over 2,000 people applied over the two week period in fall of 2017 - compared to a couple of dozen who participated the last time when individuals were required to show up in person at the courthouse.  


450 people

The number of people who had old charges dismissed that were preventing them from restoring their driver licenses.


85 people

The number of people represented by pro bono attorneys in court for inability to fine old fines and fees.


  • Well-intentioned programs can be designed in ways that unintentionally discourage participation. Making programs easier to access (via text messages) and designing to build trust where it is lacking due to systemic racism (via community outreach with a trusted messenger) can increase the number of low income residents who participate in and benefit from legal services.

  • Next time we should include an option for people to apply in person. Some individuals would have preferred to come down to the courthouse, wait in line, and meet with a person face-to-face.

  • Next time we should use technology to develop a smart text message application system. In our first prototype we relied on a very low-fidelity application system -- one of our team member's cell phone numbers (which meant personally responding to thousands of text messages). We are currently working with Code for Durham to create an automatic text message application system to respond to applicants immediately and help identify if they are eligible for the program.

  • We need to develop a common regional approach to driver license restoration. Many Durham residents have issues in surrounding counties. Unless we develop a more regional program, we will only be able to help these individuals get half way to having their license restored. And that doesn't help.

What led us to work on this?

45% of people with driver’s license suspensions reported losing their job and not being able to find a new one.

We decided to focus on this area based on the lived experiences of our residents and data that confirmed this was a barrier to employment for 46,000 Durham residents, or 1 in 5 adults.  The racial disparities are staggering: approximately 80% of those with suspended licenses are people of color.  Most have had their license suspended for more than a year for reasons not involving DWIs.  Having a license is about more than just getting to work; it is about finding work and moving out of low wage jobs. 

Racial Disparities of License Suspensions in Durham County


What's next?

The City of Durham is working in partnership with the Durham Courts, NC Justice Center, Legal Aid, NC Equal Access to Justice Commission, NC Pro Bono Resource Center, local areas law schools, Code for Durham, and many others to create the Durham Expunction and Restoration (DEAR) Program. DEAR will launch officially in January 2019, which will include a new office dedicated to advancing this work year-round. We also working with Code for Durham to design a smarter text message application process. Sign up above to get updates on when the office is open and the services it will offer Durham residents. 

We are working with Code for Durham to design a smarter text message intake process that will automatically respond to applicants to help assess eligibility.

We are working with Code for Durham to design a smarter text message intake process that will automatically respond to applicants to help assess eligibility.