The broad purpose for forming the group was to pool our resources to do good things for the community. But what? After one previous meeting, it was clear that our well-intentioned mission lacked focus and was a wish badly in need of a plan.
Then it struck me. What problem causes the most headaches for prosecutors, judges and, yes, offenders themselves? If you guessed driving on a license that has been cancelled, suspended or revoked, you are right - and you’re probably a prosecutor or a judge!
These cases clog the already-crowded court system, have little to do with public safety, steal valuable time that could be devoted to dangerous felony cases, and keep many citizens from getting back on the right side of the law.
Now, it should be noted, we’re talking about drivers whose licenses have been cancelled only because they owe money to some court, child support or other agency. We will never ease up on drunk drivers and vehicle-homicide drivers who get caught behind the wheel illegally.
So when I raised this topic at the three P’s meeting, it was an instant hit and a true group effort began to take shape.
The pastors knew of countless church members with licenses cancelled because they could not pay fines or child support or both. Some were driving illegally – and risking piling up still more fines if caught – while others did not drive, but as a result had no way to get to a job or even to look for one.
After about 45 minutes of brainstorming, the group came up with a plan: five churches around the city would be hosts for the unnamed event where wayward drivers could meet with representatives from various agencies who could help them with a plan to regain their licenses.
In many cases, that included a reduction in child support payments as well as a payment plan to satisfy outstanding fines and court costs. Assistant district attorneys and court clerks also would help citizens understand and navigate the complexities of getting minor criminal offenses expunged. This would be one-stop shopping for those in need.
After several months of planning, the first Restoration Saturday was held in June of 2018 at five churches throughout the city. (Restoration Saturday was chosen by one pastor as the name for the event since it had a more uplifting feel than the more militaristic suggestions such as Operation Drive Time. I’ll take credit - or blame - for adding “Get Renewed, Restored and Relieved” to the flyer that was designed by the son of one of the pastors.)
At some locations, job recruiters also were present. Criminal record? They could work around that.
The results were mixed: some church sites were overwhelmed, while others were, well, underwhelmed. Stormy weather also was an issue. Power at the busiest site was knocked out, forcing workers to shut down early and turn away hundreds still in line seeking help.
Still, for a first effort, there was reason to be optimistic. Hundreds were put on track to regain their licenses, child support debts were reduced on the spot and many others learned that having minor criminal offenses expunged was actually possible.
While our first Restoration Saturday was not perfect, it was a qualified success. Many people were helped, while some others left disappointed, but the sheer numbers that turned out made it clear that there was a critical need for another such an event.
Restoration Saturday 2 was held four months later at a single location, a centrally located church, so fewer clerks, ADAs and others volunteering their Saturdays would be needed. Again, many were helped, but the venue was too small, the crowds too large and the expectations too great. (No, we can’t expunge your federal felony conviction from Chicago or that speeding ticket from Mississippi.)
After that learning experience, Restoration Saturday 3 was held in March of this year and we preceded it with a news conference to let the public know what can and cannot be accomplished. The message, however, was the same as before: our goal is to help people remove obstacles that are keeping them from being productive citizens.
This time the church venue was larger, volunteers were plentiful and new social service groups joined in, offering job, education, parenting and family counseling services. A veterans organization and the Memphis Urban League also participated. Our police department was terrific with traffic and crowd control.
This time, things went so smoothly we could hardly believe it. Even the media coverage was overwhelmingly positive. (The Daily Memphian)
Since we began Restoration Saturday nearly a year ago, we have had calls from many other agencies, officials and individuals wondering how they could help – a clear sign that something is working.
Restoration Saturday 4 now is in the works. At least a half dozen churches already have offered to be our host. I’m looking forward to seeing many more smiling faces.
Meanwhile, last fall I added one more component to this war on driving-on-revoked: I stopped prosecuting those cases. The results have been astounding.
Between September and January, we have dismissed more than 11,000 cases of driving on a cancelled, suspended or revoked license. That’s nearly one-third of the docket!
Again, this applies only to drivers whose licenses were revoked because they owed some court or agency money. They still may be stopped, jailed and placed on the court docket, but their cases are quickly dismissed and, more importantly, there are no new fines added to those already facing them.
If these community-engagement initiatives continue to work, we will see more drivers renewed, restored and relieved.