The Town of Chapel Hill is starting a pilot program to cover court costs and fees for people unable to afford them. Failure to pay court costs -- for example to cover traffic and parking violations -- harms low-income people when penalties, including suspended driver’s licenses, and user fees lead to lost jobs and other hardships.
The Criminal Justice Debt Relief Program aims to address some of the inequities that social research has identified in the criminal justice system, where people of color are disproportionately impacted. This research shows that court costs and fees have created oppressive systems for people with limited resources and exacerbated inequities. The inability to pay that original fee and being impoverished is, in effect, criminalized.
“The program will provide criminal justice-related relief to poor members of our community who are taking steps to successfully reintegrate but whose ability to do so is hampered by court-related debt,” said Council member Karen Stegman. “Criminalization of poverty is a systemic injustice impacting our community. We wanted to find a way to take a meaningful step to address a systemic injustice impacting our community while also providing concrete and desperately needed assistance to residents who are struggling with the very real financial impacts of court costs and fees. “
“It was clear to me that poverty was a significant factor in the outcomes of clients’ cases and the likelihood that they would be able to successfully reenter society,” said James Williams Jr., a retired public defender for Orange and Chatham counties and founder of the NC Public Defenders’ Committee on Racial Equity. “There is this intersectionality between justice and poverty that we need to more fully appreciate if we are going to successfully do justice here in Orange County and throughout the state.”
Adopted unanimously by the Town Council on Jan. 22 (view the Council meeting video at https://bit.ly/2GhdDqe) the Criminal Justice Debt Relief Program is expected to become a model for other municipalities. Council members Karen Stegman, Allen Buansi and Mayor pro tem Michael Parker proposed the program, with input from the Orange County Criminal Justice Resource Department.
The Chapel Hill Police Department’s Crisis Unit will administer the program, establish procedures and application materials and screen applications for eligibility. An advisory committee will meet quarterly to review applications and make recommendations. The advisory committee will include members from the Community Empowerment Fund, IFC, Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, NAACP Legal Redress Committee, El Centro Hispano, an impacted community member, a victims advocate representative, a re-entry case manager, the Clerk of Courts office, and legal counsel.
“It is fitting that we considered this proposal in the same week we celebrate Dr. King’s legacy,” said Council member Allen Buansi. “One of Dr. King’s last missions was to change the social and legal circumstances disproportionately burdening the poor in America. This program continues that mission.”
As a one-year pilot, program organizers will report back to the Council on program goals and outcomes after six months.
The Town of Chapel Hill will announce when the program is ready to receive applications.