‘Poverty shouldn’t be criminalized:’ Task force issues recommendation for levying court fines and fees

NC racial equity task force takes action

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Law enforcement agencies and courts across the state are being asked to implement recommendations sent out by the NC Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice.

The group was established by Governor Cooper back in June to come up with strategies and policies to eliminate racism implicit in the state’s criminal justice system.

National data cited by the governor says Black adults are 5.9 times as likely to be incarcerated than white adults. Black defendants are more likely to be jailed before trial than white defendants.

One of the issues the group is tackling is the inequities created and perpetuated through high court costs.

Its an issue New Hanover County Chief Public Defender Jennifer Harjo says has been a concern for her office for some time.

All of the people her office works with are unable to afford a lawyer. Harjo has seen firsthand the impact court costs and exorbitant fees have on her clients.

“Sometimes I look at the fines and I don’t know if some of the staff in my office could pay those costs and we have jobs. For indigent clients, it sets in motion a snowball reaction where they never get out of the criminal justice system,” said Chief Public Defender Jennifer Harjo. “When you create all these laws and infractions and make everything in the world illegal and impose a hefty fine to it there are ramifications that aren’t always best for society.”

Harjo says she was hopeful to hear the equity task force was working on the issue.

On Friday the group released a recommendation that the North Carolina Supreme Court consider making it a general rule of practice to assess a defendant’s ability to pay before levying any fines or fees.

Attorney General Josh Stein is a member of the task force and says it’s time to make some big changes.

“These are things that we have to tackle. It’s not acceptable we have a situation...a system...that treats people differently due to the color of their skin,” said Stein. “African Americans have substantially less income and more disparity when it comes to wealth and so when they get hit with a $500 fee, for going to court, and they cant pay it, it becomes something on their record.”

Statutes say judges are obligated to take the defendant’s ability to pay into consideration, but they don’t have to ask outright if they can afford to pay the fees.

Harjo says in the chaos of a busy courtroom, fines are often handed down by the book. She believes changing that process could lead to a more equitable system.

“Ultimately, we want a criminal defendant to have a judgement imposed that will help them not be in trouble anymore, to be a productive citizen. It’s difficult to be a productive citizen when unreasonable financial obligations are looming over your head,” added Harjo.

Stein says the timeline for seeing real changes in our community largely hinges on the actions of the supreme court. In the meantime, Harjo and the others are left to wait while the court considers the recommendation from the task force.

“Hopefully, this type of action is one step toward some of the healing we need to do toward racial equity,” said Harjo.

Copyright 2020 WECT. All rights reserved.