By Sarah Grace Engel, M.T.S., Program Coordinator, Bass Connections
Durham is aiming to address a key contributor to inequities in the justice system: money. But what happens when debt relief isn’t enough?
That’s what recent Duke graduate Katherine LoBue wanted to find out. Her honors thesis grew out of her participation in a Bass Connections team called Justice Reform Efforts and Effects on Self-Sufficiency. This interdisciplinary research team and its 2022-2023 successor partnered with the Durham Expunction & Restoration (DEAR) program, which has been working since 2018 to help people whose driver’s licenses have been suspended.
Losing a license is a bigger problem than you might think. Imagine you are one of about 46,000 Durham County residents with a suspended or revoked license. Like about half that group, you were unable to pay fines or appear in court. Without a valid license, it’s a lot harder to get your kids to a doctor’s appointment, pick up groceries or just get to work on time. Your income is affected, and it only becomes harder to pay back that fine.
This vicious cycle has an outsized impact on Black Americans, who are significantly more likely to have their license taken away. Thus, the license suspension system worsens racial disparities in wealth and opportunity.
DEAR seeks to address this problem in a sweeping fashion: they’ve waived about $2.5 million in traffic violation-related fines and fees. In theory, this should remove the biggest barrier for Durham residents to get their licenses restored. In practice, it’s a lot more complicated.
LoBue and her fellow Bass Connections team members interviewed 39 DEAR participants. Only three had gotten their licenses back.
This shockingly small number became the seed of LoBue’s thesis. “I was just really stuck on this question,” she said. “How is it that so few people actually get their driver’s license back in their hands?”
After conducting and analyzing the interviews, the team found commonalities among DEAR participants. They said that getting their licenses back would mean “the world” to them, allowing them to take more employment opportunities, help their family members and feel a sense of autonomy. Many were grateful for what the program was doing. Yet, most were still tangled in red tape.
LoBue had qualitative data about the experiences of DEAR participants, but she needed another perspective: that of DEAR employees who are working to implement this policy in real time. She set about cleaning and coding the 11 employee interviews she and her team members had collected, then analyzed the two sets of data through the lens of administrative burden.
Administrative burden refers to the barriers people face when trying to access the intended benefits of a policy. While social service programs are often analyzed for administrative burden, the concept has rarely been applied to criminal justice reform. Looking afresh at the interviews, LoBue saw that it should be.
LoBue found three types of administrative burden in the DEAR program: learning costs, psychological costs and compliance costs. To benefit from the program, people have to find out that they are eligible in the first place and learn the procedure. Then, they experience stress and frustration as they work their way through the complex, time-consuming process. Finally, they still have to get to the DMV, which sometimes hasn’t received the needed information from the court system, and pay the fee for a new license.
The process isn’t easy for DEAR employees, either. For one thing, they’re trying to track down contact information for people who got traffic tickets as far back as 1987. For another, mass relief means an overwhelming number of people to be helped, and the office’s resources are limited.
Still, the employees and many participants see the program as an important force for good, and LoBue agrees. “It serves as an inspiration, it gives people a second chance, and it’s exactly the type of criminal justice reform I think we need in this country,” she said. “But if we want the program to expand, which so many of the interviewees do, the system needs to be modernized to remove some of those administrative burdens.”
LoBue said she gained unique and relevant experience from her time with Bass Connections — especially in the use of qualitative data, which she had rarely encountered in her coursework. “I think that qualitative research paints a far more nuanced and complex portrait of human lived experiences,” she said. “I feel like it allowed me to get a lot more proximate to all the issues that have studied in my classes.”
This experience confirmed her interest in criminal justice reform. LoBue is now in Washington, D.C. working as a consultant in the citizen services department of Booz Allen Hamilton. She hopes to attend law school and continue working directly with those impacted by the legal system.