Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Advocates offer pro tips on how to combat burdensome court fines, fees

The People’s Convening on Fines and Fees in North Carolina kicked off a campaign over the weekend to end the practice of saddling poor people with overburdensome court fines and fees.

The two-day event, held at Bennett College in Greensboro, informed attendees about court fines and fees and how they operate in the state, and they allowed impacted individuals to lead discussions. They also proposed solutions and encouraged community members to get involved on the local level.

Below is the information they provided for people to take action.

Court data and the experiences of impacted people show that people involved in North Carolina’s criminal justice system — especially people of color — are too often being set up to fail because of their inability to pay the range of costs that have become attached to virtually every aspect of the criminal justice system, including reentry.

The collateral consequences of criminal justice debt are often long-term, severe, and economically crippling: indefinite driver’s license suspension, violations and extensions of probation, wage garnishment, tax liability, property forfeiture, bankruptcy, civil judgments, liens, and incarceration. People, families, and communities of color disproportionately and more severely experience these costs and collateral harms. 

Outlined below are several education and advocacy efforts that can be pursued in your community by impacted people and their allies, including you. For regular updates on campaign activities and additional materials, please visit https://www.endcriminaljusticedebtnc.org/ and https://ncsecondchance.org/.

  1. Establish a program to eliminate traffic court debt and restore driver’s licenses. 

In NC, failing to pay a traffic ticket causes an automatic, indefinite suspension of a person’s driver’s license. Court data reveals that traffic court costs are very rarely paid after two years of nonpayment. In 2019, district attorneys in Durham and Mecklenburg led initiatives to eliminate millions of dollars in long-term traffic court debt and thousands of driver’s license suspensions. The debt relief programs piloted in these jurisdictions can be efficiently replicated in all North Carolina jurisdictions if there is support from local court officials, including district attorneys, district court judges, and clerks of court.

Local decision-maker(s)/advocacy target(s): district attorney, judges, clerk of court

Contact for additional guidance/support: Laura Holland, NC Justice Center, laura@ncjustice.org, 919-861-1462

Materials and other resources: https://ncsecondchance.org/resources/second-chance-mobility-starter-packet/ https://sites.law.duke.edu/justsciencelab/

  1. Revise the local bail policy to be fairer, reduce pretrial confinement, and comply with the statutory restrictions on secured money bonds.

North Carolina law provides a common-sense procedure for determining conditions of pretrial confinement that only allows a judge to impose a secured cash bond if the judge determines the person is a flight risk, poses a danger of injury to any person, or is likely to tamper with evidence. Unfortunately, many jurisdictions have substituted these statutorily established procedures and considerations with unfair and problematic bail schedules that imposed specific secured cash bond amounts by default based on the charged offense. In 2019, several jurisdictions have piloted bail policies meant to reduce pretrial confinement.

Decision-maker(s)/advocacy target(s): senior superior and chief district court judges, district attorney

Contact for additional guidance/support: Jennifer Marsh, Self-Help, Jennifer.Marsh@self-help.org, 919-956-4692

Materials and other resources: https://cjil.sog.unc.edu/areas-of-work/bail-reform-2-0/

https://nccriminallaw.sog.unc.edu/bail-reform-in-north-carolina-what-are-the-options/ https://www.rstreet.org/2019/04/25/how-a-north-carolina-county-became-a-laboratory-for-bail-reform/

  1. Promote regular use of petition and order forms by local court officials to facilitate fair consideration of a person’s ability to pay a fine and/or fee at sentencing and prior to imposition of any sanction for failure to pay.

Several statutes provide judges the authority to waive and otherwise eliminate fines and fees in a broad range of circumstances, including inability to pay, change of circumstances, and “proper administration of justice”. For several reasons, judges are rarely using their authority to eliminate fines and fees, including the absence of petition and order forms in a court system that is purposely reliant on standard forms. Jurisdictions can adopt local forms based on the templates linked below.

Decision-maker(s)/advocacy target(s): senior superior and chief district court judges, district attorney

Contact for additional guidance/support: Whitley Carpenter, Forward Justice, wcarpenter@forwardjustice.org, 919-323-3889

Materials and other resources: https://nccriminallaw.sog.unc.edu/a-swiss-army-form-for-fines-and-fees/ https://ncsecondchance.org/resources/template-forms-motion-and-order-to-waive-remit-fines-and-fees/

  1. Use court facility fees to establish a municipal fund to help people pay criminal justice debt.

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Defending Democracy, News, public health

ICYMI: Why are so many Black babies dying in North Carolina? (Video)

If you weren’t able to attend NC Policy Watch’s Crucial Conversation about the Black infant mortality rate in the state, that full program is now available online.

This week’s event featured Lynn Bonner of the News & Observer discussing her seven-month project about the racial disparity in infant mortality rates in North Carolina. She reports that Black babies are more than twice as likely to die than white babies. Other panelists were Whitney Tucker, Research Director at NC Child; Rebecca Cerese, Engagement Coordinator for the N.C. Justice Center’s Health Advocacy Project; and Tina Sherman, Campaign Director for the Breastfeeding and Paid Leave Campaigns at MomsRising.

They talked about the extent of the crisis and offered solutions, both long and short term, for combating racism and offering better care to Black pregnant women.

Stay tuned for an announcement coming soon about the next Crucial Conversations event, which will be a happy hour featuring special guests who will discuss all things related to the North Carolina primary election.

In the meantime, please watch and share this special presentation:

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

NC advocates call for ‘common sense’ democracy reform

North Carolina advocates called on their elected leaders Friday to pass needed reform to combat corruption and strengthen democracy.

Melissa Price Kromm, Director of North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections, La’Meisha Whittington with the N.C. Black Alliance and Bob Phillips, Executive Director of Common Cause N.C., gathered on the front lawn of the General Assembly and called for the passage of the For the People Act (HR1) in Congress.

The measure is a comprehensive set of anti-corruption, election security and political reforms that directly respond to the issues raised in the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. The U.S. Senate voted yesterday to acquit Trump on articles of impeachment.

“We have to keep fighting at all fronts,” Kromm said. “We are here to say enough is enough; we will fight for democracy; we will save our country, because that’s what true patriots do.”

Whittington said it became very clear during the impeachment trial that the political system is broken. She said that the nation needs to focus on removing barriers that prevents access to the ballot, updating voter systems and securing election infrastructure.

“This act ensures fair maps, automatic voter registration and other common sense democracy reform,” she said.

The advocates also called on North Carolina legislators to pass similar democracy reforms, in addition to ensuring that voters are informed of the money behind elections, strengthening revolving door laws and enacting nonpartisan redistricting reform.

Phillips pointed out that lawmakers are still not discussing redistricting reform, even after being forced by the courts to redraw both the legislative and congressional voting maps because of unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering.

“If this year comes and goes and nothing is done, the people will notice,” he said. “Until we get [redistricting reform], we’re going to have a lot of problems with our democracy.”

The time to act is now, Phillips added.

Defending Democracy, News

Tomorrow: Regular voter registration deadline for 2020 primary election

The deadline for regular voter registration to cast a ballot in the North Carolina 2020 primary is tomorrow, Feb. 7, but it won’t be the last opportunity.

North Carolinians who miss the regular deadline can still register and vote at any one-stop early voting site in their county during the early voting period from Feb. 13 to 29. There, registered voters may update their address, but not their political party affiliation.

Registered voters who wish to change their party affiliation have to do so by tomorrow.

“The State Board [of Elections] encourages every eligible North Carolina resident to make sure they’re registered before the primary election,” said Board Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell in a news release. “This includes making any changes, such as address and party affiliation.”

To register to vote, individuals must meet certain qualifications and complete a North Carolina Voter Registration Application (available in English or Spanish). Applications are available at the State and County Boards of Elections, public libraries, public high schools, college admissions offices and many state agencies. Voters can check their current voter registration status online.

Once completed, the applicant must sign the form, and mail it or return it in person to their county board of elections. Voters who are already registered may update their information by submitting a voter registration form by email, fax, mail, or in-person to their county board of elections.

Prospective voters must meet the following qualifications to register to vote:

  • Be a U.S. citizen;
  • Have been a resident of North Carolina, the county, and precinct for 30 days before the election;
  • Be at least 18 years old; 17-year-olds may register and vote in a primary election if they will be 18 at the time of the general election; and
  • Not be serving a sentence for a felony conviction (including probation or parole). (Citizenship and voting rights are automatically restored upon completion of the sentence. No special document is needed.)

Voters are NOT required to show a photo ID for the March 2020 primary election. In a Dec. 31 order, a federal district court blocked North Carolina’s voter photo ID requirement from taking effect. The injunction will remain in place until further order of the court.

Defending Democracy, News

Ahead of historic impeachment vote, Senators Tillis and Burr heap praise on President Trump

President Donald Trump did not mention his impeachment trial in Tuesday night’s State of the Union, but later today the U.S. Senate will hold a final vote on two articles of impeachment.

North Carolina Senator Richard Burr and Thom Tillis have made it clear they will not vote to remove the President from office. Indeed the Republican-controlled chamber is expected to stick with Trump this election year and vote to acquit.

Last night following the State of the Union,  both Burr and Tillis took to social media to praise Trump.

Here’s how Senator Burr re-capped the speech:

Senator Tillis went a step further posting a video in which he said he was proud to support President Trump and looks forward to working with him in the next Congress.

The impeachment trial resumes today at 9:30am. A final vote on the articles of impeachment has been scheduled for 4:00pm this afternoon in the Senate.