Greene and Lenoir Counties are working towards keeping children in schools and out of jails. By launching a School-Justice Partnership, they seek to reduce law enforcement involvement in school misconduct. As part of the partnership, schools have signed an agreement outlining strategies for addressing misconduct. Currently, students of color and students with disabilities are overrepresented among suspended and expelled students. The partnership will aim to reduce some of these disparities. Successes in other counties have been encouraging. In New Hanover County, a similar School-Justice Partnership resulted in a 47 percent decrease in referrals to the juvenile justice system in its first year. School-Justice Partnerships are becoming more common throughout North Carolina since the passage of the Raise the Age legislation, which raised the age of juvenile jurisdiction for nonviolent crimes to 18. As schools and communities take a much-needed look at the impact of the justice system on youth, North Carolina stands to benefit from a more rehabilitative, more equitable justice system. Learn more here.
Bail reform advocates around the country now have a new tool to challenge the cash bail system. In North Carolina, the inequality created by cash bail has prompted advocates to push for pretrial release based on evidence of dangerousness and flight risk rather than ability to pay for bail. Only 10.4 percent of North Carolinians live in a district that makes pretrial release decisions based on such evidence. Recently, litigation in Texas has provided a model for those seeking cash bail reform. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently found in O’Donnell v. Harris County that a Texas county’s system of setting bail for indigent misdemeanor defendants was unconstitutional. While state law required an individualized review of factors such as the ability to pay, the charge, and community safety, the court found that individualized assessments did not occur. Public defenders across North Carolina have cited similar concerns in their communities. With this new development in Texas, North Carolina advocates and those across the country have more hope for challenging cash bail. Learn more here.
In theory, debtor’s prisons in the United States have been abolished long ago. In practice, however, the criminalization of poverty is a common problem. North Carolina is no exception. Not only are people often jailed for the inability to pay court fines and fees, but they are often subject to the arbitrary and unnecessary imposition of bail that they are unable to pay. As a result, defendants are often held in jail for minor charges regardless of a lack of danger to the public or flight risk.This runs contrary to North Carolina law. Despite the supposed presumption of innocence in the United States, people are jailed without having been found guilty of a crime simply because they are poor.
Being incarcerated even for a short time can wreak havoc on individuals, families, and communities. It can lead to loss of employment, loss of parental rights, and loss of housing. It destabilizes people who are already likely to face precarious financial situations.
The for-profit bail industry provides options for some individuals who are able to pay a bail bondsman, but can lead to exploitation and debt. Paying a bail bondsman will allow an individual to pay only a small fraction of their bail, which is guaranteed by the bond company. Bail bondsmen tend to favor higher paying defendants, so that defendants with lower bail are unable to find some who are willing to engage with them because it is not profitable.
Of North Carolina’s 100 counties, 22 have pre-trial release programs that help save money that would otherwise be invested in jailing people. These programs work with courts to allow release of individuals who do not present a flight risk or danger to the community, are first time defendants, or are facing less serious charges. The programs are largely funded by nonprofits but also by the individual counties. Unfortunately, the bail bond industry has made efforts to limit or eliminate pre-trial release programs. The industry possesses a great amount of political power. It has made copious amounts of political contributions to lawmakers, some of whom are bail bondsmen themselves.
Thankfully, local North Carolina civil rights groups have not chosen to stand by idly while the rights of poor justice involved individuals are being compromised. A coalition of groups has begun meeting to exchange ideas, to share successes in the fight against the bail industry, and to strategize for ongoing work. To name just a few, the coalition includes the Carolina Justice Policy Center, the North Carolina ACLU, the North Carolina Justice Center, Southerners on New Ground, the Center for Community Self-Help, and the Center for Responsible Lending.
At the February meeting, Southerners on New Ground presented about their involvement in the national Mama’s Day Bail Out. This event involved bailing out Black mothers to bring them home in time for Mother’s Day. The event drew national attention to the plight of individuals who are too poor to pay their own bail, as well as to the effect that their incarceration has on their families and communities.In Durham, SONG bailed out 14 women from the Durham County Jail. To celebrate Black August, SONG bailed out 9 more women. These bail out events are part of a strategy to push for various reforms. SONG is calling upon key decision-makers to stop incarcerating people based on their finances, to allow for careful and individual pretrial decision-making that allows for community input, and to assesses people’s needs to get back to court in order to invest in meeting them.
Other organizations in the coalition are doing work ranging from researching the impact of the bail bond industry, researching and drafting model legislation, litigating, and pushing for policy reform. The Carolina Justice Policy Center is proud to be working alongside these organizations to help stop the criminalization of poverty in North Carolina. We hope to serve as a resource for you as you get educated about this issue, so that you can stay informed about how you can join us in this struggle.
The U.S Imprisonment rate has dropped 11% since peaking in 2008, according to the Pew Charitable Trust Public Safety Performance Project. This marks the lowest rate since 1997. The decrease has coincided with long-term reductions in crime. Since 2008, combined national and property crime rates have dropped 23 percent. 36 states have experienced this decrease in imprisonment, with declines of 15 percent or more in more than 20 states. To learn more, click here.
The State Reentry Council Collaborative was created by the General Assembly to study the needs of individuals with criminal records as they return from correctional institutions. The goal of the council is to improve the effectiveness of local reentry councils. Members of the council include various governmental agencies, faith-based and community-based nonprofits, and local reentry council intermediary agencies.
On Tuesday, February 6th, the council met to continue its important work. Governor Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein were in attendance. The council is divided into work groups which examine specific needs, including housing, transportation, employment, mental and physical healthcare, educational and vocational training, faith and community based support, advocacy and communications, family reunification and support, and legal assistance. Carolina Justice Policy Center serves on the advocacy and communications workgroup, with the goal of educating the public about the needs of returning citizens and how successful transition is critical to public safety.
by Molly Riesenberger
The ACLU report, “In for a Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons,” presents the findings of a yearlong investigation into “debtors’ prisons,” exposing how poor defendants are increasingly being jailed for failure to pay legal debts that they cannot afford. Flashback to 1983 – The Court ruled in Bearden vs. Georgia that imprisoning a defendant who was unable to pay his debts, despite bona fide efforts to do so, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. It further held that a judge must determine whether the defendant has the ability to pay the debt, but “willfully” refuses. Today, courts nationwide habitually ignore the precedent established by Bearden vs. Georgia. In fact, states now collect legal debts more aggressively from men and women who are financially unable to pay than from those with the means to do so. The report unearths the damage that debtor’s prisons do to citizens, the economy and the criminal justice system.
The ACLU investigation focuses on legal financial obligations (LFOs), which is a general term describing “all fines, fees and costs associated with a criminal sentence” (ACLU). While LFOs are seen as essential revenue to the courts, there is not data showing that their efforts to collect debts actually generate income – in fact, incarcerating those unable to pay ends up costing states even more than unpaid legal debts.
LFOs disproportionally hurt racial and ethnic minorities, as they are disproportionally represented among the prisoner population. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit acknowledged that there is racial bias in the criminal justice system – African-Americans and Latinos in Washington State were excessively arrested for drug possession, more likely to be searched, and less likely to be released without bail than those who are white. According to the ACLU report, “These same disparities extend to the assessment of LFOs: In Washington, Hispanic defendants generally receive higher LFOs than white defendants convicted of similar offenses, and persons convicted of drug offenses receive significantly higher LFOs than those convicted of violent crimes” (ACLU).
The result of LFO collection is a two-tiered system of justice: the poorest defendants are punished more severely than those with financial means. Ironically, the poorest defendants are the ones who ends up paying much more in fines and fees that those who can afford their LFOs. For example, in Washington state, all unpaid legal debts are subject to 12% interest (ACLU). This eventually turns into a lifelong debt – a typical criminal defendant with an average LFO that makes a monthly payment on that LFO would still have a legal debt 30 years post-conviction.
The ACLU came up with a list of recommendations for state and local officials to remedy some of the most serious debtors’ prison abuses:
- Defendants should not be incarcerated for failure to pay LFOs that they cannot afford – the court must consider if the defendant is able to pay and then decide if the failure to pay is willful.
- States should repeal any law that results in poor defendants being punished more severely than defendants with means, and there should be consistent guidelines for assessing LFOs.
- Judges should receive training in the determination of defendants who cannot afford to pay prior to incarceration. Furthermore, judges should appoint counsel to defendants at proceedings to determine LFO sanctions.
- Defendants should be given the opportunity to repay their debts through alternative methods, such as community service.
- Data should be collected about LFO collection in each jurisdiction – the costs of collection, how collected funds are distributed – broken down by race, crime and location.
- Court should be funded enough so that they do not need to collect LFOs.
- The government should hold oversight hearings on the rise of debtors’ prisons.
Cyclical injustice results when our system incarcerates the impoverished, while allowing those with greater means to serve their sentence by simply signing a check.