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.
He said the hundreds of dollars of fees piled on for one offense often fall onto the poorest offenders.
“The Supreme Court said a long time ago it’s unconstitutional to criminalize people for their poverty, and this is part of the scheme that works to do that,” Nichol said.
In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Bearden v. Georgia that no person should be imprisoned solely because they are unable to pay a court fee. But according to the Southern Center for Human Rights, this provision is often ignored.
The N.C. Constitution also states in Article 1, Section 28 that no person is to be jailed for debt, except in cases of fraud.
The Town Council also created the Criminal Justice Debt Fund Advisory Committee at its Jan. 22 meeting, which will comprise of eight representatives from the Orange County criminal justice and indigent service provider community.
The committee will review applications, make recommendations on improvements and share information with applicants about where to find extra information on debt relief. They will also send the Town Council a report after six months, updating them on program metrics to be considered for future funding.
Both the fund and committee were approved unanimously. However, council member Tai Huynh asked the council to reflect on how the expansion of the Land Use Management Ordinance rewrite — adding $652,000 to its budget — received very little scrutiny while the pilot program received much more questioning.
“The level of scrutiny we are giving to this project and how much evaluation we want out of it for $20,000 to help indigent people of color in our community — just the level of conversation and the conversations we’ve been having — I think we should reflect on that as a council,” Huynh said.
Nichol said there is still work to be done toward criminal justice equity in North Carolina, but measures like this fund indicate hope for progress.
“It’s a first step, it’s a pilot,” Nichol said. “But it shows that Chapel Hill is paying some attention to the potent unfairness that can happen even locally here in our criminal justice system, and trying to do something about it.”
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