Chapel Hill launches court debt fund for poor, minorities
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.”
CHAPEL HILL COURT DEBT FUND
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.”
CRIMINAL, SOCIAL AND RACIAL JUSTICE
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.”
FUNDING STATE BUDGETS
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.