Many of us watched earlier this month as Paul Manafort was sentenced to 47 months in prison, and the internet exploded with scorn. Crystal Mason was sentenced to 5 years for a single incident of voting a provisional ballot which never counted. In the US statistically, black men are ordered to serve 20% longer sentences than white men for the same convictions, and 60% of the people in US prisons are minorities. There are a multitude of factors in sentencing, from judicial discretion, to past records, perceptions, defense attorneys, and totally different crimes, but however you slice it, it’s not difficult to conclude our criminal justice system is rife with racial and economic inequities.

There’s some good news in raising the age and reducing profit on prison labor, but all too often cash bail, for profit prisons, and discriminatory sentencing are criminalizing poverty and furthering a racially unjust justice system. For a robust history of Criminal Justice and current efforts… please see our Criminal Justice Toolkit. For a shorter introduction to what we can do in our state to make a difference, please read on.

Criminalizing Poverty

It is impossible to separate race from economics when we live in a state where 23.5% of African Americans, 25% of American Indians and over 17% of the LatinX community in NC live below the poverty line, compared to 10% of whites. Women and children also live in poverty at higher rates than men. And one study found that the cities with the highest revenues from fines had “African American populations five times greater than the national average.” For simplicity, we’ll focus on economics, but know that where identity and demographic factors intersect it further compounds the injustices within the justice system.

When the accused cannot pay cash bail, fees for entry to alternative sentencing substance abuse programs, or court fees and fines, it accelerates a downward spiral towards further impoverishment. A person experiencing homelessness in North Carolina may be arrested for loitering or trespassing. If he cannot post cash bond, he’s held in county lock up, accumulating fees, losing his belongings or part time jobs, and often ending up with strikes on his record.

Kristie Pucket Williams was in jail on drug charges, pregnant with twins, and unable to post $167,000 bond. She accepted a plea bargain so she wouldn’t give birth in prison and be separated from her children. With the plea bargain the lower bond allowed her parents to pay for her release and treatment. She now works for the ACLU as an advocate for cash-bail system reform, but what if she had gone to trial or her parents couldn’t help her?

The reality is states that require cash bail pretrial have much higher rates of plea bargain acceptance, and 60-70% of those who cannot post bail are minorities. This is forcing poorer and minority citizens to accept convictions because they cannot afford bail, much less a trial. And in Mecklenburg, for example, 18% of people were in jail simply because they couldn’t pay court costs. Meanwhile, daily fees for imprisonment continue to accumulate. If you can’t pay bail, how are you going to pay for your prison ‘accommodations’? This is not due process; this is criminalizing poverty.

Economics aren’t simply impacting individuals; institutionally it’s big business.

“All told, the fines, fees, and other court costs generate $700 million for the state’s general fund, where it’s diverted to courthouse maintenance, public education, and police training, among other government functions.”

The Atlantic

The North Carolina General Assembly passed tax cuts, and tried to institute a constitutional amendment to permanently cap the tax rate (now in court), despite the fact that we have over $700M of our government costs being paid for by the accused.This is a system that only encourages false accusation and conflicts of interests, and does so at disproportionately higher rate towards lower income and minority North Carolinians. One study found that “60 percent of the 1,400 municipal and county agencies surveyed across the country relied on forfeiture profits as a ‘necessary’ part of their budget.” In Bearden v. Georgia (1983), “the Supreme Court ruled that people cannot be jailed or have probation revoked because of an inability to pay fines,” but if you don’t have money for an attorney, most people will continue to be criminalized for poverty.

Last summer, many of the US 2.3M imprisoned striked against prison conditions, especially unfair labor practices wherein approximately 800,000 prisoners work, or are compelled to, for as little as 4 cents per hour.  Most people incarcerated in private prisons are federal prisoners, but of the 37 states that allow privatization, NC has one of the lowest rates of private prison use – but that means proposals to increase use are likely. According to the Sentencing Project, the two largest private prison companies’ revenue was $3.5B in 2015, and growing rapidly.

Some Good News

Last month the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that excessive fines at the state and local levels do violate the Constitution. The ruling limited the state and local governments’ abilities to seize property or impose high financial penalties.

“For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties,” Ginsburg wrote. “Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies. . . Even absent a political motive, fines may be employed in a measure out of accord with the penal goals of retribution and deterrence.”

In North Carolina judges can waive some fees, but thanks to a mysterious 2017 law that was not sponsored or named- just slipped into the budget- judges must alert all concerned parties in advance that a fee may be waived, wait five days, and then a record of his/her waived fees is kept. For example, we know that before she was a legislator, Rep. Marcia Morey waived fees in about 30% of her cases, and remains a vociferous advocate for these kinds of reforms.

What can you do?

Ask legislators, especially those with deep judicial experience like Joe John and Marcia Morey, to support bills regarding the following:

  1. Remove Cash Bail
  2. Allow judges to waive court fees
  3. Limit prison labor/wage
  4. Prohibit for-profit prisons