Research and Programs

Faces of Poverty

Professor Gene Nichol is the author of “The Faces of Poverty in North Carolina: Stories from Our Invisible Citizens” (UNC Press, 2018).

These are the faces of poverty in North Carolina: scores of homeless men, women, and children take refuge in makeshift camps, barely hidden in the woods near some of our most affluent neighborhoods. Hundreds wait in lines hours long to receive basic health care at underfunded free clinics. In large cities and small towns, children–especially children of color–rely on meals at their schools to keep hunger at bay, while parents struggle in jobs that fail to pay living wages. While many in the Tar Heel State enjoy unparalleled prosperity, those born into poverty have lower odds than ever of climbing the ladder of economic upward mobility. Today, more than 1.5 million North Carolinians live in poverty. More than one in five are children. Behind these sobering statistics are the faces of our fellow citizens. This book tells their stories.

Since 2012, Gene R. Nichol has traveled the length of North Carolina, conducting hundreds of interviews with poor people and those working to alleviate the worst of their circumstances. Here their voices challenge all of us to see what is too often invisible, to look past partisan divides and preconceived notions, and to seek change. Only with a full commitment as a society, Nichol argues, will we succeed in truly ending poverty, which he calls our greatest challenge.

Criminal Justice Debt

Across North Carolina, poor defendants in criminal and traffic cases have to pay the courts. Costs accrue at every step and can add up quickly, even for minor offenses. Defendants who are unable to pay off this debt face additional penalties, including new fees, extended probation, the revocation of their driver’s license and, incredibly, jail time–often for offenses too minor to warrant incarceration in the first place.

Court Fines and Fees: Criminalizing Poverty in North Carolina

Our first report in our series on criminal justice debt, “Court Fines and Fees: Criminalizing Poverty in North Carolina,” uses defendants’ stories, court observations and interviews with advocates, judges and public defenders to explore the ways fines and fees trap poor defendants in a vicious cycle of debt and punishment. We examine how fines and fees raise troubling questions of constitutionality, cast doubt on the fairness of our courts and infringe on judicial independence. We scrutinize claims about the necessity and cost efficiency of fines and fees and look at the factors that drove their rise in the state. We conclude with simple, straightforward recommendations that can be easily adopted by the courts.

Forcing Judges to Criminalize Poverty: Eroding Judicial Independence in North Carolina

Our second report focuses on the ways in which changes to state law have tied the hands of judges when it comes to waiving court fees and fines. Although both state and federal law permit judges to waive fines and fees—and frequently require it–the North Carolina General Assembly has worked steadily to limit judicial authority on this front. This intrusion on the authority of the courts violates fundamental separation of powers mandates and jeopardizes the rights of impoverished defendants.

About Court Fees

In North Carolina, all defendants in traffic and criminal court who plead guilty or are convicted must pay fees to the court system. These fees are administrative, intended to cover various state costs. The most common fee is the “general court of justice” fee. It and the smaller fees that come bundled with it total about $200. Additional fees–for pretrial detention, electronic monitoring, community service and even attorney’s fees–might also apply, depending on the case. Defendants who pay late, bounce a check, pay on an installment plan or fail to appear in court pay additional fees. On top of fees, defendants may also have to pay fines and restitution.

Defendants in criminal cases are overwhelmingly poor. Court costs and fees can become a long-term financial burden. And the penalties for nonpayment can be severe. The practice that gets the most attention is the incarceration of defendants who can’t pay their court-ordered debts, often referred to as the revival of “debtor’s prison.” But poor defendants who are unable to pay can also remain trapped in the court system or lose their driver’s license. All these sanctions have downstream consequences–loss of a job, housing or benefits, for example–which make it harder for defendants to escape from debt.

The incarceration of poor defendants solely because they lack the funds to pay their fines and fees is unconstitutional. Judges are supposed to ensure that poor defendants aren’t sent to jail for this reason. But judges often don’t conduct any inquiry into the defendant’s ability to pay or, if they do, they apply unreasonable and hostile standards. As a result, the constitutional prohibition against debtor’s prison is regularly violated across the state. Judges also can waive court costs and fees, but in the great majority of cases, they don’t.

Waiver Rate by County Map

Source: NC Administrative Office of the Courts

Exploring Economic Distress in North Carolina

In 2013, we started looking more deeply at the divide between urban and rural poverty in North Carolina, focusing specifically on Mecklenburg and Durham counties. At that time, discussions about poverty were often framed as a rural issue. But inspired by colleagues’ research at UNC-Chapel Hill, we found deep pockets of poverty in both rural and urban places, and that some of the worst-off neighborhoods were at the core of the state’s most affluent cities.

This led us to think more deeply about how poverty looks in locations across the state–and why it might be that way. In 2014, we received a grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation to extend this research to a range of NC communities.

This multi-year effort resulted in the publication of a series of reports consisting of interviews with residents, partner organizations, local and regional nonprofits, local government officials and other stakeholders.

We want this research to be useful for the communities we work with. We hope that these portraits shed light on the reasons for poverty in a place and convey the impact it has on poor individuals and the larger region. We want to spur local officials, nonprofits and service agencies to act, and to act wisely. And we want to spark conversations, locally and statewide.

Charlotte
Medicaid Expansion
Durham
Wilkes County
Goldsboro