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Summit highlights barriers created by court fines, fees

Formerly incarcerated individuals, advocates share experiences, potential solutions

By
Senior Staff Writer
Monday, February 3, 2020

Almost 5 percent of Rhode Island’s residents owe money to District Court, a common trouble for formerly incarcerated people.

Over 100 attorneys, state government workers, community members and local advocates came together at a summit Friday to discuss how court fines and fees hinder the formerly incarcerated from successful reentry into society.

The summit, entitled “Worth the Cost? Or Impediment to Reentry, Rehabilitation and Recovery? A Legal, Public Health and Educational Response,” was hosted by the Rhode Island Public Defender and the Rhode Island Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

The summit’s forum “REAL People, REAL Money, REAL Problems” featured three formerly incarcerated panelists with firsthand experience of the impediments created by court fines and fees.

One of the panelists, Marcus Lopez, spoke about his experience following his release on parole after serving seven years in prison. He was leaving work in Providence one day to pick up his son when he was pulled over by a police officer for a traffic violation. The officer asked for his information, and he provided it. The next thing he knew he was standing outside his car with the officer putting him in handcuffs, asking Lopez why he did not show up to court. Entirely unknown to Lopez, he had failed to appear to make a court payment, an offense that warranted his arrest. His own parole officer told him that even she was not aware he owed court fines.

Lopez was not alone: As of last April, 48,027 Rhode Islanders — 4.5 percent of the state’s population — owed balances to District Court, the College Hill Independent reported.

“Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution but furthest from resources and power,” said James Monteiro, the forum’s moderator. “This (forum) is the way we bring people close to the problem together with those who have the influence and power.”

Monteiro has been close to the problem himself. Having spent 20 years of his life in and out of prison, he has a personal understanding of the issues facing former offenders. Now he is also close to the solution as the founder and director of Reentry Campus Program, an organization that provides educational opportunities to currently and formerly incarcerated individuals.

To illustrate how the system of court fines and fees is designed to fail low-income people who have been entangled with law enforcement, Justin Thomas, a former offender, recounted his morning spent advocating for a client at court for missing court payments. Though his client receives just $900 a month from Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance and pays $580 a month in rent, she has court costs totaling $1,500.

“This is clogging up our court system,” Thomas said. “It is unrealistic for a person who brings in that amount of income to actually be able to pay those … court fines and fees, so inevitably she ends up back in jail, which affects tax money among a lot of things.”

In addition to this forum, the summit also featured a keynote speech from Chris Maselli, former Rhode Island state senator and deputy majority leader, who discussed the problem of real “debtors’ prisons.” The speech was followed by presentations from community experts on the unique public health challenges imposed on those recently released from prison and in recovery. In the afternoon, the summit hosted a panel discussion on how current procedures and policies in U.S. court systems keep poor people in prison through fees and fines.

Wole Akinbi, a facilitator at half full, LLC, said he came to the summit “to learn how to be an advocate” and to better connect the people he helps to community organizations like House of Hope Community Development Coorporation and OpenDoors RI.

Akinbi works within the Smith Hill neighborhood, where he said many people are former convicts. “In order for me to better help these people, we need to know exactly what they’re going through,” he said.

Annajane Yolken ’11, executive director of Protect Families First, helped organize the event and participated in the presentation of the public health impacts of court fines and fees. Yolken said she was pleased with the turnout of the event and how it brought diverse groups of people together.

“I really hope people took away that these court fines and fees have really real and negative impacts on people’s lives and that they are not worth whatever revenue they generate,” Yolken said. She added that going back to court to pay fines and fees can be retraumatizing to people who are still dealing with the aftermath of their convictions.

“This is a room full of advocacy,” said Monteiro. “We’re taking time out of our days to be here. It’s one thing to show up to the conferences and summits, but what do we do … when it’s actually time to support and fight for these bills? That’s when we need the support. That’s when we need to come together.”

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