Over and over, Marion Superior Judge Jose Salinas has witnessed the hardships that come when adults are prohibited from driving.
As the presiding judge of the Marion County Reentry Court, Salinas heard the stories from ex-offenders who were late for their court appearance because the bus was not running on time or they had to rely on a friend for a ride. The obstacle would be compounded for the individuals who had jobs because public transportation does not go everywhere nor operate around the clock.
Most often the ex-offenders can drive, but they have lost their ability to do so because their licenses are suspended.
“It is not the norm for our clients to drive themselves,” Salinas said.
In response to that persistent problem, the reentry court is launching a one-year pilot project to try to help select ex-offenders get their driver’s license suspensions lifted. The court is appropriating $10,000 from the Community Transition Program grant, which will be used to pay Indianapolis Legal Aid Society to represent the individuals who petition to get their driving privileges restored.
Salinas said the court’s participants, whom he refers to as “clients,” need to drive to get to work, to counseling and drug testing appointments as well as for the enjoyment of life.
“We do believe it is one reason our clients will have a better chance of succeeding,” he said.
The reentry court plans to identify 10 to 20 candidates for the pilot, which is projected to begin by fall. Habitual traffic ex-offenders will not be selected, Salinas said. Rather the target is individuals who have had their driver’s licenses suspended for driving violations that did not result in an accident or injury. The best candidates will be those who are working and supporting their families.
As part of the pilot project, the court may waive fees and fines that accompanied the suspension and will ask the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles to exercise its discretion in reconsidering the financial penalties.
Salinas emphasized the grant money will be used to pay ILAS for legal representation. It will not go toward covering the fines and fees.
The legal aid attorneys have experience helping individuals who have suspended licenses because of failure to pay their child support. This project with the reentry court will put the lawyers into a quasi-criminal area in which they have little experience, but ILAS general counsel John Floreancig is confident the learning curve will be quick.
Filing the petitions for the pilot will be similar to the petitions ILAS attorneys have filed in other situations to get a driving suspension lifted, he said. The work will not require the lawyers to change their court strategy or devote a significant amount of time to these cases.
“I’m honored the court chose us,” Floreancig said, calling the project a win-win and noting the money for the work is coming as ILAS is struggling under budget cuts from its primary funder, the United Way of Central Indiana.
“(This pilot) allows us to do some needed work in the community and we get paid to do it,” Floreancig said.
Providing representation so these pilot candidates can petition to get their license suspensions lifted is essential. Not only do they not have the resources to hire their own attorneys but the petition process is complex and very difficult to navigate as a pro se filer.
“It’s really offering a fresh start,” Floreancig said of the project. “These guys just need a break. That’s what we’re all about in this country.”
Salinas speculated that some may be driving anyway and if they are licensed, they will be more inclined to get car insurance.
On a recent Friday session of the reentry court, the participants were approaching the bench and talking informally with Commissioner John Christ. The court has about 150 participants at any one time, which Salinas said is only a small fraction of the estimated 4,000 to 5,000 individuals who return to Marion County each year from the Indiana Department of Correction.
Underscoring the need these ex-offenders have for transportation, Christ ordered a bus voucher for one young man.
Floreancig, from his work at ILAS, has seen the difference reliable transportation can make. Being able to drive means people can get to work. They will then have the ability to pay their bills and child support, and it may prevent them from turning to crime since they will have the money to provide for themselves and their families.
“The courts have always said driving is a privilege not a right but, really, in this day and age, I’m not sure that’s correct,” he said.•