Monday I went to court to support a friend who was recently issued a citation for panhandling. It was interesting to see how justice is made in the basement of the Forsyth County Hall of Justice.
Once the courtroom doors opened at 9:00 am, defendants flooded in. The gallery was comprised of average looking joes and janes, disproportionately low-income and people of color. I didn’t see anyone in the crowd that looked like they had money. The bar that divides the gallery from the judge, attorneys, law enforcement, and court personnel is also a de facto class barrier.
An attorney in the DA’s office read out everyone’s name in quick succession and curtly informed defendants of their options. I’m willing to bet that that stern little man was a member of his university’s Young Republican chapter. Everyone sat patiently, quietly waiting for their case to work its way up the docket.
Judge Denise Hartsfield was the presiding judge. Her bright red lipstick and large hoop earrings surprised this observer. I’ve been told by Hartsfield’s supporters that she’s a judge who cares. But a friend who was evicted from the Cleveland Avenue Homes with the blessing of Judge Hartsfield has a more critical opinion of Hartsfield. At times she was engaged. But at other times she seemed to be bored. I wonder if she’s tired of hearing the cases of winos in the Hall of Justice’s basement.
The speed of everything made an impression on me. It was like speed dating. Perhaps speed adjudicating is an accurate term. From the morning role call to short conversations attorney’s had with their clients in the courtroom gallery and in the hallway, outside of the courtroom. Those courthouse lawyers get to the point fast and inform their clients of their legal options. What I observed wasn’t anything like what’s portrayed on television. But I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt to public defenders assisting their clients to the best of their abilities.
My friend got a continuance. We left a little after 12. In the course of just a few hours observing how the judicial sausage is made at the Hall of Justice, it’s clear that poverty is criminalized in Forsyth County. ‘Justice’ in Forsyth County is like a bad game show where the poor are disproportionately entangled in the legal system and forced to pay fines they can’t afford or worse-led off to jail over misdemeanor offenses.
For a serious examination of this topic, read Court Fines and Fees: Criminalizing Poverty in North Carolina. Here’s an excerpt:
Most criminal defendants are poor. Nationally, about 80-90% of those charged with a criminal offense are poor enough to qualify for a court-appointed lawyer. Around 20% of jail inmates report having no income before they were incarcerated and 60% earned less than $1,000 per month (in 2002 dollars, about $16,000 a year now). Almost a third of defendants are unemployed before their arrest. Many defendants are disadvantaged in other, related ways. In North Carolina, 30% of prison inmates have no more than a ninth-grade education; 99% are, at most, high school graduates.20 Seventy percent of newly arrived prisoners screened for chemical dependence in North Carolina need substance abuse treatment. A state Department of Correction survey found that 36% of people entering prison had been homeless at some point, and 7% had been homeless immediately before imprisonment. The primary reasons given for homelessness were unemployment, substance abuse and a previous criminal conviction.
Court costs disrupt lives already complicated by poverty and dislocation. ‘For lots of people, fines and fees are worse than the conviction,’ one expert commented. ‘The thinking goes, “I can keep my job with the conviction, but I lose my housing with fees.”’ Fines and fees of a few hundred dollars can present a substantial hurdle—and several studies show that court debt is often worse