Second chance workshop helps individuals get back on the road

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To give a break to individuals who badly needed one, Marion County prosecutors and public defenders joined together Monday and helped hundreds clear the path to getting their driver’s licenses reinstated.

The Second Chance Workshop, held in a building belonging to the Marion County Public Health Department, helped 295 people take the first steps to getting their driving privileges restored. Attorneys and staff from the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office and Marion County Public Defender Agency as well as from the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic and the Indianapolis Legal Aid Society along with lawyers volunteering their time spent the day helping clients fill out forms and file paperwork to get fines and fees waived.

“I’ve seen a lot of very happy people. Everyone seems ecstatic,” said Sarah Harvey, paralegal with the Indianapolis Legal Aid Society. “I can understand because what they’re doing here today is lifting a big burden off many.”

The fuel behind the workshop was Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears. He explained that in his work at the prosecutor’s office, he had encountered “too many good people” who got a ticket because they had a busted brake light or did not stop for a traffic signal. Then the spiral would begin because the traffic fine coupled with the hundreds of dollars in fees from the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles created an insurmountable financial hurdle. Ultimately, their driver’s licenses would be suspended.

Mears, sporting an Indiana Pacers sweatshirt, was roaming around the room and interacting with the individuals and attorneys at the workshop. As the forms were completed, he would add his signature, waiving the fines that for some reached well over $1,000.

The reality, he said, is that individuals with suspended licenses are probably driving anyway. To take their children to school, get to work, go to the grocery or see a doctor, residents of Indianapolis need a car.

However, without a valid license, the drivers could not get insurance which creates a potential hazard for the larger community traveling the roads. By having their licenses reinstated, Mears said, the individuals could get proper coverage as well as get to and from work legally.

For some, the return of a driver’s license could even enable them to hold down a job.

Individuals were not leaving the workshop with their licenses in hand. The court papers prepared at the event were filed with Marion Superior Judge Marcel Pratt, Jr. If he approves the waivers, then the individuals can go to the BMV and take the steps there to get their driving privileges restored.

Likely many would be able to get their licenses in January.

Laura Pitts, staff attorney at the public defender agency, echoed Mears in saying the individuals at the workshop were not hardened criminals. They were people who got a traffic ticket and now were trying to get their licenses back so they could go to work and support their families.

“It’s a happy day,” Pitts said. “Today is very rewarding.”

The workshop was organized after a similar event in July was overrun with more than 1,000 people wanting help. Most of the individuals who came in November had been given a special invitation because they had gone to the summer event but were not able to be seen by an attorney at that time.

Mears described the recent workshop as keeping a promise to the individuals who needed help.

Along with unpaid traffic tickets, the workshop was also helping individuals who had their driver’s licenses suspended when they fell behind in their child support payments. Arrangements were being made so those individuals could get their licenses while meeting their obligations.

Mears said his philosophy was not to suspend people’s ability to drive legally because of a child support arrearage. That only posed another obstacle for those individuals to find work and get the income they needed to make the payments.

Harvey had arrived before the workshop opened and was planning to stay the entire day. Sitting behind a laptop, she was inputting data and scheduling appointments for the individuals who had additional legal issues and wanted to meet later with an ILAS attorney. She was enjoying the opportunity to spend the day meeting with clients and said she was willing to participate in any future workshop.

The workshop had an additional benefit of bringing in some revenue. Mears said the purpose for the November event was to realize a financial return but the prosecutor’s office was having “honest conversations” with the individuals about what they could pay.

In July, those conversations reaped about $10,000.

As people begin filling the empty seats in the late afternoon and waiting for their turns to meet with an attorney, Mears was smiling and energetic.

“We see our job at the prosecutor’s office as trying to help people,” he said. “We want to try to help people get back on their feet so they can be successful.”

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