Pilot program gives drivers with license suspensions and a pile of fines a chance to get out from under.
Dana Carlson, 38, can't remember the last time he was legally able to get behind the wheel.
His driving history is dotted with citations for being caught without proof of insurance and driving while his license was suspended. His problems and his fines increased with each incident.
"It was a freaking circle of death," Carlson said.
Despite his mistakes, Carlson is getting another chance to earn back his driving privileges, thanks to a pilot program designed to help drivers who have gotten in trouble for not having valid licenses. The program offers temporary licenses so people may drive while paying off their fines in installments.
"We have a lot of people just driving because they need to for their kids [or] need to for employment," said Cary Schmies, assistant city attorney for Duluth. "They need to just drive, so the program is nice to [let them] take care of their past debts and it allows them to ... legally drive."
Last year, the Driving Diversion Program helped get 518 drivers back on the road legally and collected $421,000 in violation fees. The program is due to end at the end of June, but supporters are trying to get it extended.
There are many stories like Carlson's, in which people continue to drive after getting their licenses taken away, only to pile up more fines they can't pay.
"You get caught in a vicious cycle. ... Sometimes people get into it, and they have a heck of a time getting out," said Mike Lewis, a program instructor.
The Driver and Vehicle Services Division (DVS) of the state's Department of Public Safety estimates more than 500,000 people are driving without valid licenses in Minnesota.
Participants in the program are required to stick to their payment plans, get insurance and attend a class that covers topics such as state laws and personal finance.
A class in West St. Paul last week was one of the first steps for Carlson to get his license back. He recently made the first payment on his fines and obtained car insurance, he said. Now, he has to take tests to get his temporary license, he said.
"Basically, I'm getting my life back," he said.
Anthony Turner, 42, of St. Paul, has not had his license since last summer, when it was taken away after he was stopped for drunken driving, he said.
Turner said he faces thousands of dollars in fines.
"I got in this program because my fines were so high that I couldn't pay them straight," he said.
Turner said he hasn't driven since, but he needs to get his license back because of a medical condition that requires him to visit the hospital four times a week.
According to a February report, the program had about 1,800 participants last year. About 77 percent of participants are in good standing in the program.
To have had even 15 percent of the participants in compliance would have been a success, said Scott Adkisson, president of Diversion Solutions, which runs the program in collaboration with DVS and several pilot cities.
"We're just ecstatic. We never thought we would be that high," he said.
In 2009, the Legislature created the Driving Diversion Program to help drivers and to lessen the burden on law enforcement, attorneys and the court system.
At the time of the legislation, about a third of a typical city attorney's caseload involved cases of people driving without a valid license, Adkisson said.
"It's a chronic, pervasive problem," said Darcy Erickson, assistant city attorney for West St. Paul, South St. Paul and Inver Grove Heights, cities that are part of the pilot program. "There aren't a lot of great tools that allow us to get at what drives the problem."
But she said the program has the potential to do just that.
St. Paul and Duluth also have offered the program since its inception, and in February, Minneapolis, Bloomington and Maplewood joined. Only drivers ticketed in the participating cities can use the program.
In his office, cases dealing with revoked or suspended licenses have gone down by at least 50 percent since the program began, Duluth's Schmies said.
Legislation that would extend the program for two years would allow counties and more cities to participate.
For more information about the program, see https://www.diversionsolutions.net or call 1-866-518-2597.
Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495