Durham County

3 ways the justice system punishes the poor. And what Durham is doing about it.

Georgetown University Law professor Peter Edelman speaks with Durham Mayor Steve Schewel before a talk about decriminalizing poverty Friday, Feb. 16, 2018, in Durham, N.C.
Georgetown University Law professor Peter Edelman speaks with Durham Mayor Steve Schewel before a talk about decriminalizing poverty Friday, Feb. 16, 2018, in Durham, N.C. Matt Riley

Durham is making progress on decriminalizing poverty but faces significant obstacles from the state legislature, community leaders said Friday.

The justice system penalizes poor people in three main ways, Peter Edelman, a Georgetown law professor and author of “Not a Crime to Be Poor,” told more than 50 state and local officials and others at the forum.

First, jailing people convicted of minor offenses can start a downward spiral, Edelman said. Even when given probation, if they miss one payment they can get a new violation and owe more money.

Second, setting high cash bail traps those unable to pay. “You’re in jail and you’re waiting to be tried, and you can’t pay for the $500 bail, and your only way out is to plead guilty,” he said. But then it’s difficult to find work and housing because of the conviction, he said.

Third, seizing driver’s licenses subjects some people to further arrests and fines. “They drive anyway to work or taking their kids to school, and of course you get caught,” he said. “And you owe money, because that’s what it’s all about – it’s about getting more money.”

Peter Edelman

Criminal-justice fees have become a big business, Edelman said at the forum held in the Durham headquarters of MDC to help mark the nonprofit’s 50th anniversary.

“Ten million people owe $50 billion in court debt nationally, from fines and fees,” he said. “We’ve known about mass incarceration for a long time, and this is just its twin. It’s just as evil as its sibling.”

Cristina Becker, an attorney and criminal justice debt fellow with the ACLU in North Carolina, said fees help fund agencies like the state crime lab and public schools but disproportionately fall on people of color.

“There is a very nefarious movement to try to strip money away from black and brown defendants and give it to the state,” she said, estimating 80 to 90 percent of criminal defendants can’t afford attorneys. “So if you’re trying to get money from them, you’re getting blood from a stone.”

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‘Light years ahead’

City, county and state officials said Durham is spending money to help people save money.

“Durham is light years ahead of most counties in North Carolina, and it is thanks to our county commissioners who pay $400,000 a year on pretrial services,” said state Rep. Marcia Morey, a former chief district court judge.

Instead of a bail system, individuals placed in pretrial services undergo a risk and background evaluation, including employment history and prior charges. Judges review the evaluations and then decide whether to release them.

Mayor Steve Schewel cited the county’s misdemeanor-diversion program as another step in decriminalizing poverty. The program gives people under 21 a second chance when charged with their first non-violent misdemeanor.

But Schewel said state lawmakers block further change.

“There’s a lot of good work that’s going on, but until we change our state legislature, we’re not going to come near to what we’re trying to do here,” he said. “As long as the state legislature is the state legislature we have, all of the issues that we have with bail, driver’s licenses, expungement, with evictions – all those things that help create the criminalization of poverty – we’re going to be in a rear-guard action.”

Last year, the General Assembly voted to make it more difficult for judges to waive fees. The restrictions include a requirement that judges send a 15-day notice to an extensive list of state agencies, which can object.

Morey said it is time to review state criminal statutes, including “going through pretrial-release mandates.”

“We need to take into account that [having] money is not the best predictor of appearing in court or [committing] further crime,” she said. “Let’s do a revision of some of our criminal laws and procedures. It’s time.”