In the United States, justice is far too often equated with punitive incarceration. This has created a crisis in mass incarceration that inflicts lasting harm, which disproportionately impacts people of color and those who are experiencing poverty. Vera strives to break the association between public safety and carceral punishment through Motion for Justice, an effort of the Dignity, Racial Justice, and Prosecution Initiative led by Vera’s Reshaping Prosecution program and John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Institute for Innovation in Prosecution.

This year, Motion for Justice partners have implemented alternatives to punishment that will increase public safety. Chatham County, Georgia, District Attorney Shalena Cook Jones and local nonprofit Savannah Feed the Hungry created an innovative program for young people who are facing gun possession charges. Instead of traumatic prison sentences, the Show Us Your Guns! Differentiated Disposition Program offers teenagers and young adults a chance to complete programs designed to develop their potential.

Show Us Your Guns! directs eligible young adults ages 16 through 25 who face gun possession charges into programs run by Savannah Feed the Hungry. Many young people facing gun charges need opportunities to grow. Unlike one-size-fits-all prison sentences, programs aimed at such growth help shape young people who will be positive influences in their communities.

The lasting legacy of the “tough-on-crime” era means that, in many jurisdictions, people charged with gun possession will face harsh penalties, long sentences, and little chance for rehabilitation. Yet, in many instances, gun possession is related to fear of physical safety, not criminal motivations. Programs like Show Us Your Guns! remove firearms from the streets without “throwing away” the teenager or young adult. Incarceration takes a person away from their community and sets them up for future failure; in contrast, diverting people pre-charge to a community-based program aims to set them up for success. Twenty people are expected to complete the program by the end of 2022.

Photo by Andrea Morales

Prosecutors’ offices can use their power to help people avoid getting into situations where they face pressure to break the law. The Marion County Prosecutor's Office—a Motion for Justice partner—reported to Vera that in 2019, 15 percent of those who were of driving age had suspended driver’s licenses. Many of those suspensions stemmed from minor missteps, like driving with a broken taillight or failing to signal at a turn, which could result in a traffic ticket of more than $200. In Indiana, if a person doesn’t pay the ticket for a moving violation and fails to appear in court, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles automatically suspends their license. For their license to be reinstated, they must pay the ticket and, on top of that, they may have to pay a license reinstatement fee if they were driving without insurance. These fees start at $250, but they can, and often do, amount to several thousand dollars.

In places without reliable public transportation, this forces people to make the horrible choice between breaking the law and maintaining their employment. Driving to a job to earn needed money can lead to incarceration.

That’s why, in summer 2019, the prosecutor’s office ramped up its efforts to help people get their driver’s licenses reinstated and get back behind the wheel legally. In partnership with local organizations like Horizon House and the Indianapolis Legal Aid Society, the prosecutor’s office started hosting in-person and remote workshops during which they waive and dismiss unpaid fines and help people get their licenses restored. Through these Second Chance Workshops, the prosecutor’s office reported to Vera that it has helped remove $1,175,000 in fines and fees for more than 2,000 people to date. It has held more than 40 workshops since 2019, including more than 30 in 2022.

“There’s nothing you can really do. They want you to pay it off, but how can you pay it off if you can’t work?”
—Derrick Sprouse, a Memphis resident who had his license suspended due to more than $10,000 in fees
“[Requiring fees to get a driver’s license reinstated] effectively just becomes a tax on the poor. And it’s a tax that’s never collected, because, of course, nobody has $7,000 to pay to get their license back. The current system is not working. No one’s paying the tickets, no one’s paying the BMV reinstatement fee. This isn’t lost money. People just don’t have the money to pay.”
—Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears