Not everyone in North Carolina understands the implications of court fines and fees and how expenses 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 kicked off a campaign last week at Bennett College in Greensboro to change how people think about the burden court debt can pose, particularly to people who are poor.
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-played going to jail and reaching out to family or friends for help. The goal of the activity was to help non-directly impacted attendees better understand the costs associated with the court system and the collateral consequences it can have.
“It was meant to demonstrate the range of fees and the number of entities that 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 project of the Justice Center.) “For example, everyone in my group was shocked that the defendants were being charged $7.50 for the law enforcement retirement fund, and that people who couldn’t afford bail were being charged $10 per day while they were in jail waiting for trial.”
Bowes facilitated a group during the roulette activity. He said what participants also saw was how bail and legal financial obligations cause people to have vastly different experiences in the court system.
“In the scenario in which a person had more wealth, they spent less than a day in jail and only ended up losing a few hundred dollars,” he said. “Whereas, the less wealthy individuals ended up spending many days in jail and thousands of dollars in fees while also losing employment.”
Funding the courts
When a crime or infraction is committed, fines are used by the court system as a punishment. The money collected from fines goes to the public schools.
Courts also impose fees and costs to cover administrative overhead, but that money does not go solely back into the court system.
District Court costs – which include traffic offenses and misdemeanors – add up to $173, and Superior Court costs add up to $198. But that’s only a baseline; there are other costs associated with court in many cases, including attorney fees, restitution and jail fees. There’s even a $250 fee associated with community service.
The expenses associated with North Carolina’s criminal justice system create a “two-tier justice system,” according to advocates – one in which people must overcome not only the hurdle of an alleged crime or infraction but also the burden of debt.
“The State of North Carolina’s current policy of using fines and fees as a way to fund our criminal legal system hearkens back to the South’s troubled history of debt peonage, especially considering the stark racial disparities that proliferate every stage of the criminal legal system,” said Daryl Atkinson, Co-Director of Forward Justice.
He moderated a panel Friday about what fines and fees are and how they are assessed in North Carolina. He said shining a light on the practices here can operate almost as a cleansing process, and he encouraged residents to participate in court watching in their home communities.
“We ain’t being quiet no more,” he said. “We’re going to start making some noise on this stuff.”
Ignorance of the law?
Cristina Becker, a mitigation specialist and attorney with the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, spoke on the panel Atkinson moderated about her time court-watching when she was a criminal justice debt fellow at the ACLU of North Carolina.
She and others at the organization spent at least two years investigating how court fines and fees operate in North Carolina. Specifically, they sought to understand how frequently North Carolinians are incarcerated and or trapped in poverty due to the imposition of court fines and fees, according to the report, “At All Costs: The Consequences of Rising Court Fines and Fees in North Carolina.”
“It’s sad to say that a lot of practitioners just don’t even know the law,” she said when it comes to fines and fees, particularly the ability for judges to waive them for poor defendants.
Becker said the areas with robust and engaged public defenders offices made the biggest difference in waiving court fines and fees, simply because they would bring the topic up in court.
“Unless you’re having that conversation, the practice just isn’t there,” she said.
She added though that in some areas, there are judges who are unwilling to help poor defendants by waiving fines and fees. She gave an example of a judge in Robeson County who took her to task for giving him information about what the law requires under a U.S. Supreme Court case.
“Your job is not to tell me what to do,” she said he told her. “I don’t care about that case and I don’t want to see it.”
Pushing back against a rising burden
The state has steadily increased the breadth and harshness of court fines and fees over the years. In 2014, legislators passed a statute that
requires the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) to report how many court costs, fines and fees are waived by county and by judge. It resulted in a large decline in the amount of debt waivers issued across the state.
Becker said judges use it as an excuse not to waive fines and fees for people who really need it, and that the law separated “the cowards from the brave.”
“All they want is to be able to report to the legislature and say, ‘look at all this money I got you,’” she said.
The two-day People’s Convening addressed numerous layers of the fines and fees question – there was a panel about how other states are tackling the issue; a panel of directly-impacted individuals talked about their experiences with fines and fees; attendees broke into groups to learn how to court-watch and drive change at the local level; and there were conversations with elected court officials to foster a deeper understanding of the system.
Whitley Carpenter, a staff attorney at Forward Justice who helped organize the event, said the North Carolina Fines and Fees Coalition really wanted to expand their work both geographically and in terms of who is represented.
The Coalition is a group of community advocates, impacted individuals, researchers and attorneys dedicated to eliminating fines and fees in the criminal justice system.
The two-day convening was meant to make a stronger impact than regular professional conferences. Carpenter said they wanted to focus not only on impacted people, but also learn from them and let them lead the movement.
“At other conferences, a lot of people have the privilege of going back to business as usual,” she said. “That’s not what we wanted. We wanted to really have an ask and concrete plans to do something after.”
For example, one of the goals of pairing elected court officials with community members was to shine a light on how the practice worked in particular areas and give folks ideas on how to move forward with solutions.
“We are ready to take action,” Carpenter said. “It really takes community buy-in. There’s power in people using their voices.”
Muffin Hudson was one of the impacted individuals at the conference who shared her story widely. She spent 51 days in jail in Durham County jail because she couldn’t afford her bond.
“I’m hoping that someone hears my story and passes it on so we can get our people together to elect 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 get the policies changed until the players change,” she added.