Greensboro occasion fuels motion to reform felony justice funds and charges

Participants in the First North Carolina People’s Meeting on Fines and Charges led a discussion about the judicial system and the side effects of expenses related to certain crimes. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Not everyone in North Carolina understands the impact of court fines and fees, and how spending from minor traffic violations and criminal charges can cause a person’s life to spiral out of control.

The North Carolina Fines and Fees Coalition and the Aspen Institute Financial Security Program launched a campaign last week at Bennett College in Greensboro to change how people think about the legal debt burden that can mean to the poor especially.

One of the first activities at the inaugural People’s Convening on Fines and Fees in North Carolina was a game of Fines and Fees Roulette, in which participants role-play in jail and ask family or friends for help. The aim of the activity was to help non-directly affected participants better understand the costs associated with the court system and the possible side effects.

“It should demonstrate the range of fees and the number of facilities that will benefit from those fees,” said Daniel Bowes, director of the Fair Chance Criminal Justice Project at the North Carolina Justice Center. (Disclosure: Policy Watch is a separate judicial center project.) “For example, everyone in my group was shocked that the defendants were being billed $ 7.50 for the law enforcement retirement fund and that people fail to provide bail were … billed for $ 10 a day while they waited in jail for their trial. “

Bowes hosted a group during the roulette activity. He said what the attendees also saw was bail and legal finesLegal obligations mean that people have very different experiences with the court system.

Participants in North Carolina’s first popular meeting on fines and fees played a round of “Fines and Fee Roulette” to get a better sense of what it would be like to be charged with a crime and how the expenses add up. The woman in the picture played the sick mother of a woman who had to be released from prison. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

“In the scenario where a person had more fortune, they spent less than a day in jail and only ended up losing a few hundred dollars,” he said. “While the less wealthy spent many days in jail and thousands of dollars in fees while losing their jobs.”

Funding the courts

When a crime or violation is committed, fines are used as punishment by the courts. The money from the fines goes to the public schools.

Courts also charge fees and costs to cover the administrative burden, but this money does not go solely back into the court system.

The county court cost – which includes traffic offenses and misdemeanors – is $ 173 and the high court cost is $ 198. But that’s just a baseline; In many cases, there are other court costs, including attorney fees, reimbursement fees, and jail fees. There’s even a $ 250 fee for community service.

The costs associated with North Carolina’s criminal justice system, proponents say, create a “two tier justice system” in which people must overcome not only the hurdle of an alleged crime or violation, but also the burden of debt.

“Current North Carolina state policy of using fines and fees as a means of funding our criminal justice system dates back to the troubled history of debt bondage in the South, especially given the severe racial disparities that widen each stage of the criminal justice system,” said Daryl Atkinson, Co-Director of Forward Justice.

He hosted a panel on Friday on what fines and fees are and how they’re rated in North Carolina. He said shedding light on the practices here can look almost like a purge process, and he encouraged residents to participate in judicial oversight in their home communities.

“We’re not quiet anymore,” he said. “We’re going to start making noise with this stuff.”

Cristina Becker (right), a damage control specialist and attorney with the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, spoke in a panel discussion with Dennis Gaddy, founder and executive director of the Community Success Initiative, about how court fines and fees affect North Carolinians. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Ignorance of the law?

Cristina Becker, a damage control specialist and attorney with the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, spoke on the panel hosted by Atkinson about her time as a debt judge at the ACLU in North Carolina.

She and other members of the organization have spent at least two years researching how fines and fees in North Carolina courts work. In particular, they sought to understand the frequency of North Carolinas incarcerated and / or trapped in poverty for court fines and fees, according to the report At All Costs: The Consequences of Rising Court Fines and Fees in North Carolina.

“It is sad to say that many practitioners just don’t even know the law,” she said, referring to fines and fees, especially the judges’ ability to pass them on to poor defendants.

Becker said the areas with robust and dedicated public defender offices made the biggest difference in waiving court fees and charges simply because they would bring the issue up in court.

“If you don’t have this conversation, the practice just isn’t there,” she said.

However, she added that there are judges in some areas who do not want to help poor defendants by waiving fines and fees. She gave an example of a Robeson County judge who had held her accountable for giving him information about what the law required in a US Supreme Court case.

“It’s not your job to tell me what to do,” she said. “I don’t care about this case and I don’t want to see it.”

Pushing back against an increasing burden

The state has steadily increased the breadth and severity of court fines and fees over the years. In 2014 the legislature passed a law that

Court fines and fees can adversely affect a poor person’s ability to work, drive, and otherwise become a productive member of society, even if they are already charged with a traffic violation. At the North Carolina People’s Meeting on Fines and Charges, attendees were shown a sheet of paper showing the composition of expenses in specific situations. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Requires the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) to report how many court fees, fines, and fees are waived by the county and judge. This resulted in a sharp decline in nationally issued debt cancellations.

Becker said judges use it as an excuse not to forego fines and fees for people who really need it, and that the law separates “the cowards from the brave.”

“All they want is to report to the legislature and say, ‘Look at all the money I have you,'” she said.

The two-day popular assembly dealt with many levels of the fine and fee issue – there was a panel discussion on how other states are approaching the problem; a panel of directly affected people shared their experiences with fines and fees; participants split into groups to learn how to monitor and drive local change at the local level; and discussions were held with elected court officials to further a deeper understanding of the system.

Whitley Carpenter, a Forward Justice attorney who helped organize the event, said the North Carolina Fines and Fees Coalition is looking to expand its work both geographically and in terms of representation.

The coalition is a group of community advocates, concerned individuals, researchers, and attorneys dedicated to eliminating fines and fees in the criminal justice system.

The two-day convocation should have a stronger effect than regular specialist conferences. Carpenter said they wanted not only to focus on the people affected, but also to learn from them and let them guide the movement.

“At other conferences, many people have the privilege of going back to work,” she said. “We didn’t want that. We really wanted to have an inquiry and concrete plans to do something afterwards. “

For example, one of the goals in pairing elected court officials with parishioners was to shed light on how the practice works in specific areas and to give people ideas on how to move forward with solutions.

“We are ready to take action,” said Carpenter. “It really takes community buy-in. People who use their voice have power. “

Muffin Hudson was one of the people at the conference who spread her story widely. She spent 51 days in Durham County Jail because she could not afford her loan.

“I hope someone hears my story and shares it so we can bring our people together to vote for people with the right policies,” she said.

Hudson said it was exciting to see so many people interested in learning more about fines and fees.

“We can’t change the guidelines until the players change,” she added.

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