Chapel Hill launches court debt fund for poor, mi­nori­ties

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Triangle & N.c. - BY TAMMY GRUBB [email protected]­ald­ Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @Tam­myGrubb

A speed­ing ticket, for some, is lit­tle more than an in­con­ve­nience eas­ily re­solved by an at­tor­ney. For oth­ers, it can mean a choice be­tween pay­ing court costs and fees or the rent.

An­drea McSwain faced that choice when she started get­ting her life to­gether a few years ago. At 15, her abu­sive boyfriend would make her drive when they got high, she said. She got tick­ets for speed­ing, driv­ing with­out a li­cense and other charges.

“I’ll never for­get that one night I got pulled over with a busted lip,” McSwain said. “In­stead of (the of­fi­cer) ask­ing me what hap­pened, am I OK, I got a ticket for speed­ing, got a ticket for hav­ing no li­cense or regis­tra­tion, and I had to end up pay­ing for it when I got my li­cense.”

At 28, the sin­gle mother with four chil­dren grad­u­ated from Or­ange County’s fam­ily treat­ment court and started the UNC Hori­zons pro­gram, where she kicked her drug habit. The tick­ets popped up when she ap­plied for a li­cense — over $2,000 in fines, fees and court costs — and she knew the pay­checks from her restau­rant jobs weren’t enough.

She took out a loan to cover the tick­ets, pay­ing roughly $100 a month.

Other speed­ing tick­ets fol­lowed, and her al­ready high in­surance pre­mi­ums rose again when an­other driver hit her car. When she bought an­other car, she thought the regis­tra­tion was in­cluded in the loan pay­ments. It was not, and she was hit with a $235 bill to get her regis­tra­tion fixed. In Fe­bru­ary, she hopes the district at­tor­ney will dis­miss the charge, leav­ing her to pay just the court costs.

At 33, McSwain es­ti­mates she has paid at least $4,000 in court costs and fees over the last five years, on top of the fines for her tick­ets. She read­ily ad­mits her re­spon­si­bil­ity but also thinks high court costs and fees are keep­ing peo­ple in poverty from suc­ceed­ing.

“It’s still a strug­gle,” McSwain said. “I don’t like tak­ing sick days. If I don’t have comp time, sick leave, an­niver­sary leave or some­thing, I don’t take off work. I lit­er­ally can­not af­ford to miss work, be­cause I’m the only one pay­ing the bills.”


A pilot, $20,000 crim­i­nal jus­tice debt fund the Chapel Hill Town Coun­cil ap­proved this month could help peo­ple like McSwain. The fund is for town res­i­dents who have non-vi­o­lent crim­i­nal or traf­fic of­fenses and are go­ing to work or school, get­ting drug treat­ment, or tak­ing other steps to­ward a more sta­ble life.

Beth Vazquez, with the Chapel Hill Po­lice De­part­ment cri­sis unit, will man­age the pro­gram, work­ing with local courts, law en­force­ment and com­mu­nity groups, in­clud­ing the In­terFaith Coun­cil for So­cial Ser­vices and Com­mu­nity Em­pow­er­ment Fund to iden­tify clients and pro­vide help. Ap­proved pay­ments will go to the court sys­tem or the N.C. Di­vi­sion of Mo­tor Ve­hi­cles.

The pro­gram is a way to ad­dress sys­temic in­jus­tice in the courts, coun­cil mem­bers Karen Stegman, Allen Buansi and Michael Parker said in propos­ing the idea.

“Here we are again, with an op­por­tu­nity to help an­other vul­ner­a­ble part of our com­mu­nity,” said Buansi, a civil rights at­tor­ney, “peo­ple who have served their time and are try­ing their best to rein­te­grate into so­ci­ety, to be­come pro­duc­tive mem­bers of so­ci­ety, to be providers for their fam­ily, to ul­ti­mately con­trib­ute to the fab­ric of what makes Chapel Hill great.”


In a 2017 re­port, “Court Fines and Fees: Crim­i­nal­iz­ing Poverty in North Carolina,” UNC law pro­fes­sor and poverty author­ity Gene Ni­chol and re­search as­so­ciate Heather Hunt noted that roughly 10 mil­lion peo­ple na­tion­wide owe over $50 bil­lion — an av­er­age of $5,000 each — in crim­i­nal jus­tice debt. In North Carolina, the list of fees pos­si­ble in crim­i­nal cases is “un­usu­ally long” and grow­ing, they re­ported.

The sit­u­a­tion is leav­ing lower-in­come de­fen­dants and fam­i­lies at a higher risk for long-term debt, jail time for mi­nor of­fenses, and the loss of driver’s li­censes, wages, jobs and homes, they said in the N.C. Poverty Re­search Fund re­port. Those on pro­ba­tion who fail to pay their fees and costs also can be de­nied pub­lic as­sis­tance, in­clud­ing for food and hous­ing, they said.

It’s not just about crim­i­nal and so­cial jus­tice, said James Wil­iams, the county’s for­mer chief pub­lic de­fender. It’s also about racial jus­tice.

There are roughly 2.2 mil­lion peo­ple in U.S. jails and pris­ons to­day — a 500% in­crease since 1980 — ac­cord­ing to The Sen­tenc­ing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group. The num­ber has soared since the 1980s War on Drugs, it re­ported.

Black men have a 1 in 3 chance of in­car­cer­a­tion in their life­times, The Sen­tenc­ing Project re­ported, com­pared with 1 in 17 white men and 1 in 6 His­panic men.

Black women also have the high­est in­car­cer­a­tion rate at 1 in 18, com­pared with 1 in 111 for white women and 1 in 45 for His­panic women.

Felony crimes can have other, se­ri­ous con­se­quences, from hur­dles to get­ting a job, col­lege loans or pub­lic as­sis­tance, to the loss of vot­ing rights, which now af­fects 6.1 mil­lion Amer­i­cans, in­clud­ing those who have served their time.

“The sad truth is it does pre­vent the very thing that as sys­tem of jus­tice we all say we want to see,” Wil­liams said. “We want to see peo­ple back in so­ci­ety as con­tribut­ing cit­i­zens, but these costs and fees quite often pre­vent that. In or­der to solve that, I firmly be­lieve that all sys­tems im­pli­cated in what we re­fer to as crim­i­nal­iza­tion of poverty, take a re­spon­si­bil­ity for be­ing a so­lu­tion to the prob­lem.”


North Carolina’s so­lu­tion lies with the state leg­is­la­ture, which sets and steadily has in­creased court costs and fees. What used to be a $100 fee,

Hunt told the coun­cil, is now $500, $700 or $1,000.

Only some of the money col­lected by the local clerk of court is used to op­er­ate the court­house, ac­cord­ing to the N.C. Ad­min­is­tra­tive Of­fice of the Courts. Of the nearly $703 mil­lion col­lected from July 2018 through June 2019, over $249 mil­lion was de­posited into the state’s gen­eral fund, re­ports show. Most of the rest went to local gov­ern­ments, law en­force­ment, other state agen­cies and cit­i­zens, in­clud­ing resti­tu­tion and vic­tims com­pen­sa­tion.

The court sys­tem’s bud­get was $553.2 mil­lion, or roughly 2.31% of the state’s gen­eral bud­get.

Chapel Hill gets about $25,000 a year to main­tain the Franklin Street court­house, which shows, Stegman said, that the town has “un­wit­tingly par­tic­i­pated in what is widely ac­cepted to be an un­just sys­tem that has a dis­parate im­pact on the poor and on peo­ple of color.”

Other states are look­ing for so­lu­tions, in­clud­ing in Texas, where judges now can give low-in­come de­fen­dants com­mu­nity ser­vice in­stead of fines and fees. But Chapel Hill’s pro­gram is unique in North Carolina, and other com­mu­ni­ties, in­clud­ing Durham, are wait­ing to see how it works, said Caitlin Fen­hagen, the county’s crim­i­nal jus­tice re­source di­rec­tor.

It’s un­clear how many peo­ple could be served in Chapel Hill, since no one tracks that data. The av­er­age court debt for roughly 350,000 peo­ple statewide is $500 per per­son, of­fi­cials said.

Fen­hagen noted that 2,000 peo­ple with Chapel Hill ad­dresses had their driver’s li­cense re­voked or sus­pended in 2018-19 for fail­ing to pay court costs and fines. Many then risked a charge of driv­ing with­out a li­cense, be­cause they still had to get to work or school. Faced with seem­ingly un­sur­mount­able debt, some then de­cided to ig­nore their tick­ets and court hear­ings. Ev­ery court hear­ing missed is an­other charge for fail­ure to ap­pear.

While the debt fund is just a drop in the bucket, it does fill a hole in the coun­ty­wide ef­fort to help peo­ple with bail and le­gal debts, Fen­hagen said.

Other ef­forts in­clude the Or­ange County Bail/ Bond Jus­tice group, which kicked off in Jan­uary 2019 at Olin T. Bink­ley Me­mo­rial Bap­tist Church in Chapel Hill. The group is rais­ing money for a ro­tat­ing $50,000 fund to help Or­ange County de­fen­dants who can’t af­ford to get out of jail while await­ing trial. The money would pay up to $3,000 in bail and be re­turned to the fund af­ter the per­son’s court hear­ing.

A GoFundMe cam­paign es­tab­lished to sup­port the bail fund so far has raised $2,500 of its $25,000 goal.

An­other pro­gram — the Driver’s Li­cense Restora­tion Project — gives Or­ange County judges the op­tion of can­cel­ing court costs re­lated to traf­fic tick­ets, and the Local Reen­try Coun­cil helps Or­ange County res­i­dents who have served their time get job train­ing, hous­ing and other crit­i­cal ser­vices for re­turn­ing to the com­mu­nity.

Although McSwain now works part time as a court case man­ager and at her fi­ance’s roof­ing com­pany, she still strug­gles to pay her court debts and loan while rais­ing four chil­dren. She’s grate­ful for her suc­cesses hope­ful the debt fund will help oth­ers avoid the path she had to take.

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