Conference in Durham next week marks the latest push for an end to criminal justice debt
If there is a top lesson for caring and thinking people to glean from the first 16 months of the Trump presidency, it has to be the importance of not taking the basic premises of our American experiment for granted. Now that we have learned once more the hard truth that our nation is perfectly capable of electing a blatantly dishonest would-be despot possessed of only the most superficial grasp of constitutional government, the urgency of rededicating ourselves to the active protection of basic human and constitutional rights is quite clear.
Here in North Carolina, an excellent place to start with such efforts would be in the realm of criminal justice – an arena in which two of the simplest and seemingly most basic rights (the presumption of innocence and the right not be imprisoned for debt) are much in peril.
As Policy Watch reporter Joe Killian has documented in a series of stories over the last several weeks , many of the problems in these areas can be directly attributed to the state’s badly broken cash bail system. Despite the presumption of innocence and the constitutional bar against debtor’s prison, thousands of North Carolinians of modest means regularly find themselves trapped in jail for months because their bail is either too high for them to afford or, perversely, too low for their plight to attract the attention of a private, profit-seeking bail agent.
Add to this the hard reality that many bail agents, despite their status as ostensible officers of the court, often act as little better than armed predatory lenders  and the situation is rendered even more outrageous.
Last month , retired Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens told Killian “I personally think that bail bondsmen are leeches on the criminal justice system in terms of taking advantage of poor, disadvantaged people who find themselves in some situation with the law. It’s almost to the point of being immoral, frankly – especially as it deals with relatively minor, non-violent offenses.”
And yet it’s not just the bail system that is causing absurd numbers of lower income North Carolinians to molder away in jail for months – or even years – as the result of minor offenses or just mere allegations of crime. This maddening and unconstitutional situation is also the result of North Carolina’s out-of-control system of court fines and fees.
Prof. Gene Nichol and Heather Hunt of the North Carolina Poverty Research Fund at the University of North Carolina put it this way in a powerful report this past January entitled Court Fines and Fees: Criminalizing Poverty in North Carolina : “In trial courts across North Carolina, poor criminal defendants are regularly and systematically billed for an array of fines and fees they can’t afford.”
As a result, they continued, “defendants unable to pay these accumulating court costs risk triggering a cascade of draconian penalties: additional fees, revoked driver’s licenses and jail time, often for offenses too minor to warrant incarceration in the first place. The result can be surreal and cruel. Defendants unable to pay their fees are sanctioned in ways that make it even harder for them to escape their criminal justice debt. For them, fines and fees constitute an ongoing poverty trap.”
Nichol and Hunt’s message was echoed and summed up at a February Policy Watch Crucial Conversation luncheon at which nationally-acclaimed author and academic Prof. Peter Edelman held forth on his new book, Not a Crime to be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America . As Edelman explained, many American communities have, effectively, made it a crime to be poor “through money bail systems, fees and fines, strictly enforced laws and regulations against behavior including trespassing and public urination that largely affect the homeless, and the substitution of prisons and jails for the mental hospitals that have traditionally served the impoverished.”
Happily, the lamentations from this growing chorus of messengers are not falling exclusively on deaf ears. Increasingly – even in conservative circles – there is a growing recognition that our criminal justice system has lost its way – particularly with respect to the burdens and punishments it metes out to the poor.
Next Tuesday, May 15, researchers and advocates will nudge the reform boulder a little further up the hill at an important conference entitled “Criminal Justice Debt: Punishing the Poor in North Carolina.”  The event, which will take place at the North Carolina Central University School of Law in Durham, is free and open to the public (though pre-registration  is required) and will feature several of the state’s most knowledgeable and inspiring experts on the subject.
With the General Assembly scheduled to reconvene for the 2018 “short session” the following day, let’s hope the word from Durham resounds in Raleigh loud and clear.