MDC hosts Southern Partnership to Reduce Debt in effort to ‘disaggregate our safety from our addiction to punishment’

From left, MDC Program Director Jenna Bryant, Anna Sterns, and Satana Deberry

DURHAM, N.C. — More than 1.2 million people in North Carolina are living with a suspended driver’s license—more than 75% of whom are people of color. For many of these individuals their “crime” is simply an inability to pay their traffic ticket.

Issues like this one, among others, were discussed at the 2nd Annual Convening of the Southern Partnership to Reduce Debt hosted by MDC and the Annie E. Casey Foundation on Sept. 11-12 at MDC’s Learning Center in Durham. The convening included seven national organizations, and more than 20 state and local organizations from seven Southern states—Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. This network of organizations seeks to close the racial and ethnic wealth gap by giving families of color the tools they need to fully contribute to, and benefit from, the nation’s economy.

As a national SPRD partner and AECF grantee, MDC hosted the SPRD annual convening and will soon publish papers on the impacts of debt on youth, young adults, and talent development in the South and on the Southern debt policy landscape and options for change.

For many North Carolinians, an inability to pay fines and fees is their entry point into a cycle of involvement in the criminal justice system. In North Carolina, one in seven people have a suspended license, though they do not and cannot stop driving to work, dropping their kids off at school, or driving to their doctor’s appointment—especially in rural areas without public transportation. This reality creates a snowball effect as individuals move from a traffic ticket to a ticket for driving without a license to a situation where they may be in an accident without a license or insurance. The justice question associated with this situation becomes whether judges should be able to make discretionary decisions of an individual’s ability to pay a fine, especially if that fine creates an undue burden on the individual or their family.

This question has been a focal point for Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry. “We know what dangerous looks like, we know that there is a difference between first degree murder and a traffic violation,” Deberry told the group. “In our courts we must disaggregate our safety from our addiction to punishment.” She is pushing Durham courts to become more comfortable waiving fines for indigent individuals.

Deberry is not alone in her work. This mission was echoed and supported at the conference by Anna Sterns, the Chief of Staff for North Carolina Chief Justice Cheri Beasley; Daniel Bowes, the director of the Fair Chance Criminal Justice Project and a former MDC Autry fellow; and community advocate Diana Powell. Passion and personal experiences were evident throughout their discussion—three of the four panelists had personal experience driving with a suspended license due to an inability to pay their fines and fees in North Carolina.

Despite an increase in awareness and support for the problem, Bowes explained that barriers still exist. He explained that, decriminalizing our understanding of petty crime and basic violations comes with the challenge of shifting the entire judiciary’s way of thinking about punishment, and fines and fees can be very expensive and burdensome on even the non-indigent population. North Carolinians still pay more money to incarcerate people who cannot pay fines than the value their fines.

Bowes and the North Carolina Justice Center are working with Durham officials to address these barriers. Durham Mayor Steve Schewel has teamed up with them to push forward the Durham Expungement Restoration Program—a traffic fines relief effort started under DA Roger Echols. And DA Deberry has committed to continue taking the leap to address this injustice.

Discussions at the convening were not limited to fines and fees. Conversations focused on various forms of debt and methods to address the racial wealth gap in the South.

Seth Frotman discussed the rippling effect of $1.6 trillion of student debt that includes one in five  individuals in the United States today. Additional conversations discussed navigating the medical debt maze and high-cost auto and predatory loans.

As the Annie E. Casey Foundations says, “The SPRD is enabling more families of color to eliminate debt and build and maintain wealth by:

  • Enacting state and local policies that protect them from predatory, wealth-stripping products and practices
  • Developing innovative, scalable models to prevent and eliminate debt
  • Holding public institutions accountable for reducing debt burdens for their consumers and communities.”