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Criminalization of poverty is big and growing in NC
 
Published Wednesday, May 23, 2018
by Joe Killian, The Policy Watch

When Andrea Hudson (left) was pulled over for a routine traffic violation in 2013, the police officer found outstanding warrants for her arrest. The charges – abusing an elderly person and fraud – were a surprise to Hudson, who insisted it was a case of mistaken identity.

Her bail was initially set at $10,000 – out of reach for the mother of two. Even pulling together the 10 percent to 15 percent that’s necessary to pay a bail bond agent to secure her release was a stretch. When a judge raised the bail to $30,000, she could see no way out.

Hudson said she told her public defender she was willing to plead guilty to some of the charges if it would lead to her release. She asked friends to sell her car to raise the money to get her out. By the time the charges were dropped, she’d spent 51 days in the Durham County jail, lost jobs and future employment opportunities, and seen her home life upended. Though she’s since been able to get some of the charges expunged, she said the experience will stay with her for the rest of her life.

“There are so many people in jail who have not been convicted of any crime,” Hudson said Tuesday at a conference on criminal justice and debt at the North Carolina Central University School of Law. “They just can’t afford the ransom.”

Hudson now works with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and the North Carolina chapter of a group known as All of Us or None, managing a bail fund and helping to negotiate unsecured bonds – rather than cash bail – for defendants in Durham.

“That’s why I advocate so hard now,” Hudson said. “Because I know what it’s like to sit in that jail and have no one come to your rescue.”

Tuesday’s event was titled “Criminal Justice Debt: Punishing the Poor in North Carolina,” and Hudson was one of many panelists who brought personal expertise to discussions throughout the day on everything from cash bail and deferred prosecution to court costs, fines and fees. The inevitable conclusion, experts said: at nearly every step, the justice system still functions very differently for the poor and for racial and ethnic minorities, with real and lasting consequences.

James Markham, an associate professor of public law and government, has worked with the UNC School of Government since 2007. On a panel with Hudson, Markham said that while there have been some recent advances for the criminal justice reform movement in North Carolina, the last few decades have put poor defendants at a disadvantage that is difficult to reverse.

 “It’s fair to say that over the last 25 years or so, there has been an increase in the amount of costs and other fees as part of the court system,” Markham said.

In 1995, Markham said, the baseline court costs for the average case would have been around $50. By 2000, those costs were up to $110. Today, it is closer to $200.

Things like “probation supervision fees” have doubled from around $20 to $40 per month, Markham said. “Pre-trial jail fees” – the cost assessed to someone who is convicted for the cost of their having been jailed before trial – have gone from $5 to $10 per day. If given a split sentence in which part of a sentence is served on probation rather than being jailed, the cost can be up to $40 a day to the defendant.

“A lot of this can happen by inertia, just automatically,” Markham said. “The clerk just sort of does the keystrokes and adds these things in without anybody sort of stopping to do the math in their head as they go.”

“Forty dollars a day is a lot of money – just forty dollars,” Markham said. “But when you talk about a routine split sentence for like an impaired driving case, where someone is ordered to do a seven-day split or a 30-day split…30 days times $40 is really quickly an incredibly large amount of money. It would get anybody’s attention, much less somebody who is already struggling.”

But the piling on of fines and fees is just one piece of a complicated puzzle, Markham said. Another problem is the degree to which forgiving those costs and fees has become more complicated.

In 2012, judges were only allowed to waive costs upon a finding of fact and the judge had to go on record, waiving the costs in writing. In 2014, a system was instituted that would track those waivers not just by the judicial district but by individual judge, thereby creating a list, shared with the legislature, of which judges waives the costs at what rate. In 2016, judges were required to give written notice by first class mail to any entity that would be directly affected by that waiver.

Cristina Becker, a Criminal Justice Debt Fellow with the ACLU of North Carolina, said the changes to the law – the increased fees, costs and requirements – are clearly part of a larger design.

“This is intentional on the part of the legislature,” Becker said during a panel discussion Tuesday. “They have shifted the tax burden not just of funding the courts but funding multiple different agencies like the public school system as well. They have basically tried to fund these agencies on the backs of poor people who have gone through the criminal justice system.”

The vast majority of court fines collected go directly to the state’s general fund, Becker said. The legislature can do what they’d like with the money. But keeping people in jail because they can’t pay increased fines and fees doesn’t lead to an increase in funding for essential pieces of the criminal justice system – like the state forensics lab – that are supposed to be funded in this way.

Patricia Timmons-Goodson, the first black woman to serve on the North Carolina Supreme Court, gave the keynote speech at Tuesday’s event. Timmons-Goodson, who retired from the court in 2012, said it is apparent that those who are poor and navigating the criminal justice system are “between a rock and a hard place.”

[Timmons-Goodson reflected on her own life as the oldest of six children, whose Army sergeant father died young and whose family struggled to make ends meet.

“I know firsthand what it’s like for a large family to live paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “I understand all parents want a better life for their children. I have lived and I have seen the difference just a few dollars can mean to the financial survival of a family. I know what can happen if the playing field is even somewhat level – if opportunities exist for poor families.”

 

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