Stop jailing people for being poor

The Observer editorial board

Hundreds of people are sent to jail for non-jailable offenses, simply because they can’t afford to pay related fees.
Hundreds of people are sent to jail for non-jailable offenses, simply because they can’t afford to pay related fees. File photo

The poorest among us should not be responsible for funding the criminal justice system, nor should they be punished simply for being poor. That message is beginning to resonate in both Carolinas but needs to become a principle upon which more court officials and legislators abide.

In Mecklenburg County, judges are working with Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Debt Initiative to ensure that people who don’t belong in jail are no longer sent and stuck there because they are unable to pay fines on charges that aren’t supposed to include jail time. As The Observer’s Michael Gordon reported this weekend, Mecklenburg judges will start weighing defendants’ incomes and expenses, their housing status, and whether they can afford to pay for a lawyer. Given that more than half of defendants in North Carolina in non-traffic criminal cases were declared indigent last year – and that taxpayers pay the hefty bill to jail people who don’t belong there – the move is a wise one.

It goes against recent actions taken by the North Carolina General Assembly, which has made it harder for judges to use their discretion to find non-jail options for poor defendants. Legislators have increased court fees by 400 percent over the past two decades, and too many state agencies have come to rely upon the $700 million they generate for the general fund. That’s why it’s going to be difficult to reverse course. But other N.C. counties should follow Mecklenburg’s lead, even if it means more judges get placed on what court insiders call the “List of Shame” by refusing to sit idly while the state encourages a debtors’ prison. Judges should be proud to be named to the legislatively mandated list, ensuring fair treatment of the most vulnerable. They should not feel shame for doing the right thing.

South Carolina Supreme Court Justice Donald Beatty recently did the right thing when he removed an unfair burden from the poorest residents. Lower-level courts in the state had routinely been treating defendants unfairly, particularly those who could neither pay court fines nor afford their own attorney. The result was that thousands of people were rounded up and jailed over misdemeanors or for not showing up to court over traffic tickets. Many poor people were held responsible without ever being told that they had a right to an attorney. Others were jailed without evidence when they didn’t show up in court. Those decisions not only hurt them but made it harder for those on the margins to secure jobs. Going forward, they will be given payment plan options and be made fully aware of their rights; jail will become the final option and only when necessary.

We should have never built a justice system that routinely treated the downtrodden unfairly so towns and cities could fund their growing budgets. Municipalities, courts and other government agencies must find constitutionally sound revenue sources and stop preying on the poor.