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Nashville offers Cleveland non-punitive model for restoring driving privileges

October 10, 2018

Nashville offers Cleveland non-punitive model for restoring driving privileges

If you get stopped in Cleveland for driving on a suspended license, or with no license at all, you will likely get fined, and could go to jail. In Nashville, Tenn., you might catch a break. 

Rather than face prosecution, possible jail time and an unaffordable fine, some illegal drivers in Nashville will have their citations recalled and will be given help to become a legal driver. 

It’s part of a novel approach to unclogging the courts and getting driving privileges restored to those who might otherwise be stuck in a bureaucratic mess. 

It’s also a model that could work in Cleveland, local criminal justice officials believe. Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer have highlighted unfair bail and license suspension practices as part of their Justice for All series. 

The Nashville program, called “Steering Clear,” began Sept. 4. Drivers who are given a citation for driving without a valid license are directed to the Sheriff’s Department for booking and processing. But when they get there, they are given a break if they were not involved in a crash, have no outstanding criminal warrants or charges, and is are not on probation for driving under the influence or another driving offense. 

A handful of employees have been hired to work with the drivers to get their licenses back. The drivers also must complete a driver’s education class or to perform eight hours of community service. If they do one or the other, but don’t get their license restored and get stopped again, they can be given another chance to avoid prosecution. 

Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk said he expects to dismiss 12,000 charges in the first year of the program. 

“Driving under a revoked license is really a crime of poverty,” Funk said in an interview with cleveland.com, especially in Nashville, where the public transportation is not very robust. 

So, would something similar work in Cleveland? Possibly. 

Michelle Earley, presiding and administrative judge for Cleveland Municipal Court, said she plans to discuss the Nashville model with Karrie Howard, Cleveland’s chief assistant prosecutor and the person responsible for charging decisions related to criminal misdemeanors and traffic citations.  

“If the prosecutor’s office came up with a program like the program in Tennessee, we would participate in that,” Earley said. “That would be a win for all of us.” 

Cleveland Municipal Judge Suzan Sweeney also likes what Nashville is doing and thinks Cleveland should do something similar. 

“Arresting people who are too poor to pay doesn’t make us any safer,” she said. 

Sweeney, who supports proposed state legislation that would allow those with suspended licenses to perform community service in lieu of paying reinstatement fees, has said that driving on a suspended license is the most common first-degree misdemeanor in her court. 

Howard, who was sworn into his current job in June, believes more should be done to help alleviate the financial burden associated with license suspensions. But being so new to his job, he said he wants to study the issues and figure out what’s doable. 

“Change has to happen at an educated pace,” he said. 

Howard acknowledges, however, that the fines and courts costs that are imposed for driving on a suspended license can be a hardship for many. 

“That’s grocery money,” he said. “That’s a utility bill. That’s a portion of their rent and we want to reduce the impact that the court has on folks.”  

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