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The Unjust Legal System That Penalizes The Poor

photo of henderson county courthouse
Todd McDougal
Wikimedia Creative Commons

A brush with the criminal justice system for something as small as a busted tail light or speeding ticket has outlandishly large implications for people who cannot pay the fines, fees and surcharges associated with a court appearance. These costs add up for people, and they add up for the court system too. Last year North Carolina brought in more than $300 million dollars from assessing these charges.

Those who cannot afford these legal financial obligations are often imprisoned, which creates a vicious cycle of poverty and incarceration that damages their ability to work and care for their families. Host Frank Stasio talks with Cristina Becker, criminal justice debt fellow with the ACLU of North Carolina, about the money bail system and how it disproportionately affects communities of color and the poor in our state. 

North Carolina is not alone in the way it collects money from those who interact with the courts, though recent legislation making it harder for judges to waive fees was a notable move away from criminal justice reform. Overall, roughly 10 million people owe $50 billion in legal financial obligations from contact with the criminal justice system in our country, according to Peter Edelman, author of "Not a Crime to be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America” (The New Press/2017). Edelman argues the money bail system is just one example of the way the poor are criminalized.

Frank Stasio talks with Edelman, who is also the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Law and Public Policy and the faculty director of the Center on Poverty and Inequality at the Georgetown University Law Center, about how our system evolved to penalize poverty. Edelman gives a talk about his book at a special event in Durham celebrating the 50th anniversary of MDC on Friday, Feb. 16 at 7:45 a.m. He also speaks that afternoon at 12 p.m. at the Junior League of Raleigh Building.

Jennifer Brookland is the American Homefront Project Veterans Reporting Fellow. She covers stories about the military and veterans as well as issues affecting the people and places of North Carolina.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.