Driving While Poor

It wasn’t long into my career as an Assistant DA that I recognized the depressing reality that the court system places a disproportionate burden on low-income individuals.

Take revoked driver’s licenses. Most people assume that if your license is revoked it must be for impaired driving, speeding or reckless driving, but those actually account for a tiny fraction of Driving While License Revoked (DWLR) cases. The vast majority are revoked for financial reasons.

Here’s a pretty common scenario: John gets a ticket for a relatively minor offense, which may have little or nothing to do with driver safety, like an expired registration. He could get the case quickly dismissed and pay nothing if he gets the registration renewed before his court date, but he might not have the money for the taxes, inspection or registration fees. So the ticket goes unpaid and his license is revoked. John has to keep driving to provide for himself, his family and the mounting court fees. Eventually he gets charged with DWLR, he faces even more court fees, and the cycle continues. Lawyers working in the criminal courts often call this this the “DWLR spiral” or “Driving While Poor.” John would face four months in jail for just one count of DWLR and all he really did wrong was not having enough money to renew his tags.

I saw the above scenario repeat in our community and the inherent injustice was evident to me, so I took action. In 2009, I co-founded a pro bono project with the law schools at NCCU and UNC. We trained and supervised law students who provided free legal services to people in this situation. In 2011, I wrote about DWLR problems in The True Bill and then worked with state legislators from both parties to help craft legislation which removed some of the barriers to license restoration, though there is more work to be done. In 2016, I was also called to testify in federal court in the trial over our state’s voter ID law about how license revocation (i.e. loss of ID) disproportionately affected the poor and people of color. In 2019, I helped Orange County hire a full-time restoration attorney, the first position of its kind in North Carolina.

Drivers should have valid licenses for safe driving on our streets, but I believe license suspensions should be tied to dangerous driving, not poverty. I’ve made ending the criminalization of poverty a major part of my platform, and Driving While Poor is a prime example. Our community deserves a DA who not only talks about problems in our criminal justice system, but has a proven track record of taking action to improve it.

I appreciate your support to continue to address this issue and all of my campaign priorities as District Attorney.

Why I will not seek the death penalty as DA

In the first week of my campaign for District Attorney, I announced a very important decision and shared it in a self-recorded videoI have committed not to seek the death penalty if elected as DA.

Ultimately, a jury decides whether to impose the death penalty, but the DA has the discretion to seek or not seek it. If elected, the DA’s Office I run in Chatham and Orange Counties will not seek the death penalty.

I’m making this decision because the death penalty goes against the values I hold and because of what I’ve learned in my 16 years of experience in the court system. 

Here’s why I’m against the death penalty:

  • It is the only punishment we can’t undo. You can let someone out of prison, but you can’t un-kill them.
  • It is cruel. No matter the actual means of how you physically end someone’s life, there’s nothing more inhumane than telling someone when they’re going to die, then taking them into a room, strapping them down and killing them. Regardless of what that person did, I hold myself and our government to a higher standard than vicious murderers.
  • It is racist. Defendants of color are far more likely to receive the death penalty than white defendants, and those convicted of killing black victims are less likely to be sentenced to death than those with a white victim. While we work to make the criminal justice system more fair and equitable overall, we need to stop killing people of color.
  • It is not a deterrent. Research shows no evidence that jurisdictions with the death penalty have a lower violent crime or murder rate than those without.
  • It is expensive. It’s actually less expensive for our society to imprison someone for life than to execute the death penalty.

But what about victims of violent crime and families left behind by murder?  Sadly, I have sat and cried with victims and their families in grief many times over the past 16 years. Listening to victims is a responsibility I take very seriously as DA. But the death penalty does not provide closure to victims. Decades or life in prison can allow victim’s families to move on, while the death penalty triggers years of appeals. We can seek justice without the death penalty.

The death penalty is a complicated societal issue, one that I am ready to discuss in greater depth with our community members in the months ahead. But for the reasons briefly cited above and more, I will not seek the death penalty in my district.

I hope our district can lead the state and the nation in taking a stance against the death penalty and I ask for your support in doing so. I also welcome your thoughts and engagement on the issue.

– Jeff

Updated Dec 2021: My original post noted that I would be the first elected DA in North Carolina to make this office policy and definitive public statement against the death penalty. It has recently come to my attention that a District Attorney in another NC district has made a similar pledge. I was pleased to hear of this!

Raise the Age

On Wednesday, the NC legislature passed a bill to raise the minimum age at which a child could be prosecuted in juvenile court from 6 to 8. Governor Cooper is expected to sign it into law. I think we can file this under “They Really Had to Pass a Law for That?!” Our state currently has the lowest minimum juvenile age in the U.S., and this reminds me of a similar law change a couple years ago, sometimes referred to as “Raise the Age” legislation.

Prior to 2019, NC was the only state in the U.S. that automatically treated every defendant, regardless of offense, as an adult starting at 16. Fortunately, the Raise the Age bill brought that age up to 18 with the rest of the country. To be fair, even prior to that change, most 16- and 17-year-olds charged with minor offenses were offered first offender programs to avoid a criminal conviction. But the problem is that collateral consequences start as soon as you’re charged. Even without a conviction, there’s still an arrest record, a court record, and possibly a newspaper report.

That’s why I, along with several community stakeholders, started the Misdemeanor Diversion Program (MDP), which allowed law enforcement to refer juveniles who did not qualify for juvenile court to a court-sponsored intervention without a formal charge. Youth could engage in counseling, community service and restorative justice practices while avoiding the collateral consequences that come with a criminal record. Fortunately, after Raise the Age, that particular program is no longer necessary, but we should continue to expand opportunities for diversion, particularly for young people accused of crime.

Of course, there have been and likely will be cases where, based on the severity of the crime, justice demands adult prosecution of some defendants under 18, and the law still allows for that option. But those represent a tiny fraction of the cases we see. For the vast majority, we should not be treating children as adults. Period.

As always, if you have any thoughts on this or any other issue, shoot me an email at jeff@jeffnieman.com.

Court Costs and the Criminalization of Poverty

I just got a reminder that NC court costs have gone up…again. You probably know that when someone is convicted of a traffic or criminal offense, there is often a monetary fine imposed by the judge. But usually a majority of what you actually pay is a fixed court cost, the proceeds of which are parceled out to everything from facilities to telecommunications.

When I started working in the criminal courts in 2005, the total court cost was $100 per case. Since then, that’s gone up to $190, more than double the inflation rate. That’s what everyone pays, even for a minor traffic offense, in addition to any fine set by the judge. But there’s more. If you miss court on a traffic ticket, there’s a Failure to Appear fee, which used to be $50, and now it’s $200. As a result of rising fees, some judges started waiving court costs for certain defendants they deemed unable to pay. So the NC legislature responded by requiring judges to give notice to every government agency that receives a portion of court costs (about 15) and setting up other systems to discourage judges from making waivers. None of these responses from the legislature are helpful to our court system.

Don’t get me wrong, people who violate the law should be held accountable and court fines/fees are one way to do it, but these costs are excessive and disproportionately affect the poor and people of color. As District Attorney, I can’t change the dollar amount of court costs set for the state, but what I can do is take into account a defendant’s ability to pay when deciding what types and numbers of charges to press in court. Our office can also take a thoughtful and reasonable stance when waivers are sought.

Exploding court costs are just one facet of the criminalization of poverty, an issue I’ve made a top priority of my campaign, have fought against throughout my career, and will continue to address.  If you have any thoughts on this or any other issue, shoot me an email at jeff@jeffnieman.com.

Therapeutic Courts

As I meet with members of our community, it’s insightful to hear what’s top of mind regarding local criminal justice-related issues.  One common interest area from recent conversations has been our district’s utilization of therapeutic courts.

What is a therapeutic court?  It’s a type of specialized court program that seeks to focus on rehabilitation of underlying issues for individuals charged with crimes.  This alternative path is especially important when traditional criminal justice system consequences (i.e. monetary fines, probation or incarceration) are not shown to likely address the core problems leading individuals to commit similar crimes in the future.  When individuals charged with crimes are referred to a therapeutic court, they can have their criminal cases moved to a path where the court system offers them an opportunity to avoid incarceration or a criminal conviction, which often involves substance use disorder treatment, mental health treatment, and social services engagement.

In our district of Chatham and Orange Counties, we utilize several active specialized therapeutic and diversion courts, including Recovery Court (for substance use disorder), Community Resource Court (for mental health treatment) and Teen Court.  I am deeply proud of our work in building these robust rehabilitative programs.

In 2012, I created Outreach Court to help address issues for individuals experiencing homelessness, which was the first of its kind in North Carolina, because I recognized these individuals needed specific services and support to avoid future court system involvement.  I also believe substance abuse is a public health issue and should be addressed when possible through treatment, not incarceration.  I’m a big supporter of Recovery Court in that effort.

Youth also often benefit from diversion court programs.  I helped to create the Misdemeanor Diversion Program, a diversion court designed for youth under the age of 18, to focus on rehabilitation and avoid adult criminal records.  I’ve also been a long-time volunteer court judge in the Volunteers for Youth diversion teen court program, where teens actually serve in volunteer court roles and teens charged with offenses commit to community service in lieu of the juvenile court system.

As District Attorney, my priorities are community involvement, equity and justice.  I will continue to engage community resources to create better outcomes for all, including in therapeutic court programs.

If you’d like to learn more on therapeutic court programs, please reach out to me, and I look forward to sharing more about my ideas for such programs in the months ahead.