The Town of Chapel Hill has piloted a new fund to help the neediest defendants pay off their debt to the court.
The Chapel Hill Town Council approved $20,000 for the Fund for Criminal Justice Debt at its meeting last week. It will provide debt relief to members of the community who are trying to successfully reintegrate into society, but are unable to because of their court debt.
The fines and fees from the court can create significant barriers and burden poor defendants and their families. If they are unable to pay their debt to the court, defendants risk additional fees, revoked driver’s licenses, probation violations and jail time.
James Williams, a longtime Orange and Chatham County public defender and first vice-president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP, spoke at the Jan. 22 Town Council meeting. Williams said these fees are often most debilitating to the poor.
“One hundred dollars might not seem like a lot to you or me,” Williams said. “But for people who are navigating the system, it can mean the difference between being able to stay in an apartment or being able to buy food for children, any number of things.”
Heather Hunt, a UNC social sciences research associate, co-authored a study with the UNC distinguished law professor Gene Nichol on the criminalization of poverty due to fines and fees.
“Fees are really a regressive tax on people that are least able to afford them," Hunt said. "Fees are not a part of a punishment for a traffic offense or crime; they are revenue-producing. That’s their only function. In the 2018/2019 state fiscal year, a third of the money collected by the courts went back into the state’s general fund.”
The Town of Chapel Hill receives about $25,000 annually from its courthouse that goes directly into the Town’s general fund. Nichol said it is common North Carolina practice for fee revenue to be redirected.
"The North Carolina General Assembly has decided that it wants to try and pay for the operation of the criminal justice system for a kind of set of user fees which work to criminalize people for their own poverty,” Nichol said.