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September 1st, 2013

The Perpetuation of Poverty

Traffic stop in North Carolina

A traffic stop in Durham, North Carolina
Photo by Ildar Sagdejev

Anyone who has occasion to sit in the County District Courts of North Carolina, the state where I reside, can’t help but see and hear the endless parade of defendants appearing before the judge on routine traffic infractions resulting in the imposition of court costs and sometimes fines.

The court costs are generally $189.00. If someone is unable to pay, a late fee of $70.00 is tacked on and the privilege to operate a vehicle is revoked. If caught operating a vehicle while the privilege is revoked, that person could, until very recently, be subject to up to 120 days incarceration, even though the sole reason for the revocation was inability to pay a fine. The legislature, not long ago, amended the statute to repeal incarceration as a penalty, provided the reason for the revocation was neither Driving Under the Influence nor Reckless Driving.

Most people appearing before the court on driving While License Revoked charges are represented by a public defender. People only qualify for a public defender if they are indigent. This begs the question–what possible sense does it make to impose a fine or incarceration on someone who’s already demonstrated an inability to pay? Doesn’t this, in fact, exacerbate and perpetuate poverty? Doesn’t it, in fact, encourage further criminal activity?

Public transportation in North Carolina, particularly in rural areas, is pretty much a joke. In order to shop for food, clothing, go to doctors’ appointments, look for employment or pretty much go anywhere for anything, one must either drive or prevail upon the charity of someone with a car. Charity frequently costs about $20.00 a trip, long or short.

My daughter is in this situation. Her privileges were revoked for inability to pay fines for minor infractions. Her five year old son is starting kindergarten in a few days. Should she buy him the school supplies required on the list she was given by the school or pay the fines? Her son is required to have a pair of sneakers for gym class. Should she buy them or pay the fine? Should she buy food, pay utilities, buy clothing for the children who seem to need them every four to six months or pay the fines? This is how poverty is exacerbated. This is how poverty is perpetuated. You have to wonder if exacerbating and perpetuating poverty, especially now with the cuts in Medicaid and Food Stamps, isn’t state policy.

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