From 16 Charlotte clergy members (listed at the end):
It is a fundamental principle that the wealthy and the poor should receive equal justice. But as last month’s story about Rahman Bethea illustrates, the poor are often unfairly disadvantaged in the justice system. Minor infractions like possessing marijuana or driving without a valid license can cripple a person’s financial and social stability. Families and communities are powerfully disrupted by an arrest, a stint in jail, a criminal conviction, or the lingering effects of someone’s inability to pay a court cost. These disruptions widen the chasm between the haves and have-nots. Most vulnerable are the poor and communities of color, who shoulder an uneven burden of these harsh effects.
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Bethea had no criminal history when he was accused of taking electronic devices and components. The value of the items was $1,899, and Bethea needed to pay back $900 – up front – if he wanted to enter the Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office’s “deferred prosecution” program. Completing the program, which requires repayment and community service, would enable Bethea to avoid a felony conviction. There’s a condition, though: the DA’s office requires that you owe no more than $1,000 in order to enroll.
Bethea was too poor to meet the pay-down requirement, and the DA’s policy allows for no exceptions. It wasn’t that Bethea didn’t want to pay the restitution – he just needed to do it in smaller payments over time. Despite making that request – twice – the DA’s office refused.
Bethea had already lost so much following his arrest. He and his son became homeless after Bethea was fired. The pending charge was an obstacle to securing another job. He could no longer care for his son and had to send him to live with his mother in Pennsylvania. He lived out of a friend’s car for a while. He finally found work at a fast food restaurant, but with his child support obligations, he often did not have enough money for food. A felony conviction would be one more scar from his poor judgment.
We applaud the DA’s office for having a “deferred prosecution” program. There are many first-time offenders who need and deserve a second chance to make things right and avoid the lifelong consequences that come with a conviction. Our justice system needs compassionate programs. But the pay-down rule means that the people who need it most can’t participate.
Being poor is not a crime. And poverty should never be an impediment to justice. What we have learned from Bethea’s case is that far too many people are harmed by pay-to-play policies in our justice system. This should be changed.
We must ask ourselves: Is justice a privilege or a right? How much is a second chance worth? As Proverbs 22:22-23 commands, “Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the LORD will take up their case and will exact life.”
Leaders must ensure that access to justice in Mecklenburg County is meted out fairly and without regard to one’s ability to pay. We stand ready and willing to help with this endeavor.
Submitted by Nancy Ellett Allison, Amantha Barbee, Joseph J. Clifford, Amy Jacks Dean, Russ Dean, John Ederer, Greg Jarrell, Asher Knight, Steve Knight, James C. (Jay) Leach, Melissa Mummert, Tonyia M. Rawls, Frederick Robinson, Rodney S. Sadler, Jr., Judith Schindler and Peter M. Wherry.