The Greensboro occasion is fueling the motion to reform fines and costs within the legal justice system

Participants in North Carolina’s First People’s Convention on Fines and Charges discuss the judicial system and the collateral consequences of spending related to specific criminal offenses. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Not everyone in North Carolina understands the impact of fines and fees, and how spending due to 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’s Financial Security Program launched a campaign last week at Bennett College in Greensboro to change how people feel about the burden court debt can pose, especially on the poor People.

One of the first activities at the inaugural People’s Convening on Fines and Fees in North Carolina was a “Fines and Fees Roulette” game in which participants role-play to go to jail and appeal to family or friends to get help. The aim of the activity was to help participants who are not directly affected to better understand the costs associated with the court system and the possible consequences for the collateral.

“It should demonstrate the range of fees and the number of businesses 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 charged $ 7.50 for the law enforcement pension fund and that there were people who couldn’t bail them charged $ 10 a day while in jail waiting for trial. “

Bowes eased one group during the roulette activity. He said what the attendees also saw was bail and legal finDue to special obligations, people have very different experiences in the court system.

Attendees at the first North Carolina People’s Convening on Fines and Fines played a game of “Fines and Fees Roulette” to get a better sense of what it would be like to be charged with a crime and how the costs 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 lost a few hundred dollars,” he said. “While the less affluent people 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 judicial system. The money from fines goes to public schools.

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

The county court cost – including traffic offenses and misdemeanors – is $ 173 and the Supreme Court cost is $ 198. But that’s just a baseline; In many cases, there are other costs associated with the court, including legal 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” that puts people through not only the hurdle of an alleged crime or violation, but also the burden of debt.

“The 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 the debt crisis in the South, especially given the severe racial gaps that spread at each stage of the criminal justice system.” said Daryl Atkinson, co-director for 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 could work almost like a cleansing process, and he encouraged residents to attend court observations in their home communities.

“We won’t be quiet anymore,” he said. “We’re going to start making a little noise on this stuff.”

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

Ignorance of the law?

Cristina Becker, a damage control specialist and attorney for the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, spoke on the panel that Atkinson hosted on her time in court while she was a criminal justice scholar at the ACLU in North Carolina.

You and other members of the organization have spent at least two years studying how fines and fees work in North Carolina. In particular, they wanted to understand how often North Carolinians are incarcerated and / or trapped in poverty for fines and fees. This comes from the report “At Any Price: The Consequences of Increasing Fines and Charges in North Carolina”.

“It’s sad to say that many practitioners just don’t even know the law,” she said when it came to fines and fees, especially the ability for judges to waive them for poor defendants.

Becker said the areas with robust and dedicated public defense offices made the biggest difference in penalties and fees 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 are unwilling to help poor defendants by waiving fines and fees. She gave an example of a Robeson County judge taking her to court to give him information about what the law requires in a US Supreme Court case.

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

Push back against an increasing load

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

Fines and court fees can adversely affect a poor person’s ability to work, drive, and otherwise become a productive member of society after being charged with a traffic violation. At the North Carolina People’s Meeting on Fines and Charges, attendees were shown on a piece of paper how expenses add up in specific situations. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

The North Carolina Courts Administration Office (AOC) must report how many court fees, fines, and fees are waived by the county and judge. This has resulted in a sharp decline in debt relief waivers across the state.

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

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

The two-day people’s conference dealt with numerous levels of the issue of fines and fees. There was a panel on how other states are approaching the problem. A group of directly affected people shared their experiences with fines and fees. Participants split up into groups to learn how to monitor changes on the ground and drive them forward 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 really looking to expand its work, both geographically and in terms of the people represented.

The coalition is a group of community advocates, victims, researchers, and attorneys committed to the elimination of 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 to not only focus on affected people, but also 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 a question and concrete plans to do something afterwards. “

For example, one of the goals of voting elected court officials with community members was to shed some 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 a community buy-in. People who use their voices have power. “

Muffin Hudson was one of the victims 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 choose people with the right guidelines,” she said.

Hudson said it was exciting to see so many people want to learn more about fines and fees.

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

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