Mother of Niecey Fennell Speaks Out on Critical Safety Issues at Durham Detention Center


Durham, N.C.
— Attorneys for the family of Uniece “Niecey” Fennell, who was found deceased, hanging in the Durham County Detention Facility (DCDF) in March 2017, have again called upon the Durham County Board of Commissioners to address critical safety issues at the facility in the county’s 2018-19 fiscal budget. Adding to remarks made at a public comment period last week, attorneys at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice released a video of Julia Graves, Niecey’s mother, recounting her experience and the devastation her daughter’s death caused to her family.

Fennell was 16 years old when she was placed in DCDF with adult detainees. Durham County remains one of a small number of jurisdictions in America that continues to house children with adult detainees. It is also one of very few jurisdictions nationwide to have had a child die in its detention facility. The county’s practice of co-housing children and adults directly conflicts with standards adopted by Congress in 2003 with the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). PREA requires total sight and sound separation of adults and children in detention facilities. According to a study by the Equal Justice Institute, children housed with adults are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in adult facilities than when housed in juvenile facilities.

On Monday, June 11, 2018, SCSJ attorneys Ian Mance and Whitley Carpenter spoke on behalf of Julia Graves, Niecey Fennell’s mother, at a public meeting of the Durham County Commissioners. Mance and Carpenter highlighted the County’s slow response to addressing known hanging hazards in the jail, as well as its continued failure to meet critical federal standards designed to ensure the safety of child detainees. In the last 20 years, 22 people have died in the Durham County Detention Facility, the majority of them a result of suicide.

SCSJ continues to advocate that children charged as adults in Durham County need to have their own physical space where they are not subject to threats and bullying from adult detainees.

To view the County Board of Commissioners video featuring the statements made by SCSJ (28:18 to 33:20), a local teacher (33:45 to 33:25), and a student from Niecey’s high school (35:40 to 37:15), click the following link: http://durhamcounty.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=3&clip_id=1070

For the full written statement made by SCSJ at the meeting, click the following link: https://www.southerncoalition.org/statement-june-11-durham-county-board-commissioners-meeting/

Scissors cutting red tape over a drivers license with city of Durham in background

Press Release: Civil Rights Groups Sue North Carolina DMV For Revoking Driver’s Licenses of People Who Cannot Pay Traffic Tickets

Taking licenses from people who cannot pay violates the U.S. Constitution, lawsuit says

RALEIGH, N.C. –The North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has revoked the licenses of hundreds of thousands of people simply because they cannot afford to pay traffic fines and court costs. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of North Carolina and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice are suing to end the practice, which funnels low-income people further into poverty, in violation of their  due process and equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The North Carolinians impacted by this punitive scheme are stripped of their ability to support themselves and their families, as drivers’ licenses are crucial to securing and maintaining employment, driving children to school, and obtaining basic needs. The federal lawsuit challenges the DMV’s automatic revocation of driver’s licenses without providing proper notice and hearings to ensure that people who cannot afford fines and costs will not lose their license.

“No one should have to live with the burden of their license being revoked, and all the expenses that come with that, simply because they don’t have any money,” Plaintiff Seti Johnson said. “I’d previously fallen behind on my rent and sacrificed the needs of my children just to keep my license. I cannot afford to do that again. This has to stop.”

The DMV’s unlawful license revocation stems from a North Carolina statute that requires the automatic revocation of licenses for nonpayment of a traffic ticket 40 days after a court judgment.  But the law does not require a hearing before revocation to ensure that a person punished under the statute is actually able to pay. U.S. Supreme Court precedent makes it clear that inability to pay must be considered before punishing a person for nonpayment of a court fine.

“I just want a fair chance to take care of my family,” Plaintiff Sharee Smoot added.  “I can’t afford to pay the tickets right now, but that shouldn’t prevent me from having a driver’s license.”

Sam Brooke, deputy legal director for the SPLC, said: “The North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles unconstitutionally punishes people by taking away their driver’s licenses simply because they cannot afford to pay their traffic tickets, without due process or any regard for their ability to pay. It’s predatory and puts thousands of individuals with low incomes at risk. A license permits physical mobility and enables economic transcendence. Taking licenses away from those most in need is not just illegal, it is also counterproductive and heartless. We are suing to end this unjust practice.”

More than 15 percent of North Carolina residents live in poverty. North Carolina’s practice of revoking licenses for nonpayment without ensuring ability to pay disproportionately harms people of color due to longstanding racial and ethnic gaps in poverty and wealth.

“North Carolina’s unjust traffic fine collection scheme has created a two-tiered system of justice where people charged with the same traffic offense are punished differently based on how much money they have,” said Cristina Becker, criminal justice debt fellow for the ACLU of North Carolina. “Those who can afford to pay their traffic tickets get to keep their license, while those who cannot have their license revoked, making it harder to find and keep a job and take care of their families. North Carolina is denying a basic necessity – having a driver’s license – to hundreds of thousands of residents simply because of their economic standing, trapping countless people in a cycle of poverty. This unfair and unconstitutional system must end.”

Laura Holland, criminal justice attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said: “The consequences of losing a driver’s license can be devastating for low-income families in North Carolina. People facing fines for a traffic offense, with low or no income, are often forced to choose between paying fines to prevent their licenses from being revoked or using that money for food, housing and health care. When a person whose license is revoked cannot afford to pay, they are faced with a choice between losing their jobs because they no longer have a license to drive to work, or driving with a revoked license and risking further penalties.”

When the DMV receives notice that a person has not paid a traffic fine or cost, it enters a license revocation order that becomes effective 60 days after mailing or personal delivery to the motorist. The notice does not explain that, if a motorist cannot pay, they can petition for a hearing to keep their license. The notice indicates that the only way to restore a revoked license is to pay all outstanding traffic fines and court costs in full.

Johnson, a Black father of three, had to choose between paying traffic fines and supporting his children. After a routine traffic stop last summer in Cabarrus County, he was surprised to learn that his license had been revoked for unpaid traffic tickets. He was forced to use his rent money to pay off the more than $700 he owed to reinstate his license.

Johnson’s license was reinstated, but not before he received a separate traffic ticket for driving with a revoked license. The charge was later reduced, and the court ordered him to pay a $100 fine and $208 in court costs. He was able to pay $100, but couldn’t pay more, and was assessed an additional $20 fee because he couldn’t pay in full that day. Without a job, he struggled to pay the remaining amount. The fees were due on May 22, and Johnson fears that he will lose his license again.

Smoot is a single Black mother struggling to support her daughter on a low income. She lost her driver’s license in 2016 when she could not afford to pay a traffic fine. Every day, she faces an impossible choice between driving illegally to work and losing her job.

The plaintiffs seek a court order declaring that North Carolina’s law and the DMV’s practice of revoking driver’s licenses are unconstitutional. The plaintiffs also seek an injunction to prevent the DMV from revoking licenses for nonpayment without first providing hearings to determine whether motorists willfully did not pay. They also seek to prevent the DMV from revoking licenses without sufficient notice of options other than payment, to prevent those who cannot afford to pay from having their licenses revoked. The suit also requests an injunction that would require the DMV to restore any licenses that were revoked solely for nonpayment.

To read the official filing, click on the following link: https://www.southerncoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/nc_drivers_license_complaint.pdf

The State of Discipline in NC Schools

Highlights from The 2018 State of Discipline Report

The data analysis from the Youth Justice Project found that:

  • Although out-of-school suspension is down, students are still too often removed from class for disciplinary reasons.
  • Tens of thousands of young children were suspended last school year.
  • Black students were more likely to be suspended than white students.
  • There is not enough information about the impact of School Resource Officers.

While some individual schools and districts are taking steps to address the issues outlined in the report, the Youth Justice Project calls for immediate and bold action at the state level. The report outlines several policy recommendations that include:

  • banning out-of-school suspensions for early grades,
  • mandating data collection and reporting for school-based interactions with police, and;
  • prioritizing racially equitable discipline policies.

The full report can be found at southerncoalition.org/sodreport2018.

Interactive report below:

Statement from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice Regarding the Dismissal of Charges for the Protesters Charged with Toppling Confederate Monument in Durham

On February 20, 2018, Durham District Attorney Roger Echols announced that he was dismissing the charges against protesters charged with toppling the Confederate monument outside of the old Durham County Courthouse in August 2017.  The decision came the day after the first three protesters to stand trial had their cases dismissed or were acquitted.
Whitley Carpenter, part of the Criminal Justice litigation team for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which helped represent defendants in the case, issued the following statement after the charges were dropped:
“The statue that was torn down was a symbol of white supremacy that has no place in front of the public buildings that represent our community.  We applaud the District Attorney for finally dropping the charges in this case.  It’s time for us to recognize that these symbols of hate create division within our communities.  We need to make monuments to the ill-conceived project of white supremacy a thing of the past.”
Ian Mance, Laura Holland, Angaza Laughinghouse, and Ivy Johnson are also attorneys on Southern Coalition for Social Justice’s criminal justice litigation team that represented defendants in this case.
Other attorneys on the case include Scott Holmes, Amelia O’Rourke-Owens, and Thomas Cadwallader.

Dr. Kareem Crayton Hired as Interim Director for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice

DURHAM, N.C. – The Board of Directors for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) has hired Kareem Crayton, J.D., Ph.D. to serve as the interim executive director as the organization conducts a search for a full-time director.  Anita Earls, the organization’s current executive director and founder, is stepping down from her position at the end of the year to run for a seat on the Supreme Court of North Carolina.

 

Dr. Crayton’s employment with the civil rights organization will start on January 1, 2018.

 

“We are incredibly fortunate to have Dr. Kareem Crayton be a part of this transition,” said Farad Ali, Chair of SCSJ’s Board of Directors.  “In the 10 years since our founding, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice has become one of the premier civil rights organizations in our country.  We are committed to moving forward, and Dr. Crayton is the right person to help us do just that.”

 

Dr. Crayton is an internationally respected scholar, expert, and consultant whose work centers on the intersection of law, politics, and race. He is the only academic in the United States in law and political science whose primary work explores the relationship between race and politics in representative institutions. A native of Montgomery, Alabama, Crayton is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard College and holds a Ph.D. in Political Science as well as a law degree from Stanford University.  Aside from managing a consulting firm, Dr. Crayton has most recently served on the faculty of Vanderbilt University Law School.

 

“The  Southern Coalition for Social Justice is vital to defending the civil rights of marginalized communities in the South,” said Dr. Kareem Crayton.  “Having worked with this organization over the years as a partner, I know the key role SCSJ plays in making our governing institutions more accountable and responsive.  I am therefore excited to lead the board, staff, and our community partners through this phase and to make sure we continue this important work well into the future.”

 

Anita Earls, SCSJ’s current director, praised the board’s decision. “Kareem brings great insight to our organization. His deep knowledge of issues related to race, politics, and the South will be an incredible asset to the coalition,” said Earls.  “I am comforted to know that Dr. Crayton will be taking charge of the organization I founded and love.”

 

“There is no way that SCSJ would have accomplished everything we have without the leadership of Anita Earls.  We are thankful for and will certainly miss her leadership,” said Farad Ali.   “Our work moves forward, though.  We will continue to challenge unconstitutional racial and partisan gerrymandering that disenfranchises people and communities of color.  We will persist in our advocacy for reforming the criminal justice system, ending the school-to-prison pipeline, and creating fairer and safer schools for our youth.

 

N.C. Attorneys Challenge Court Fines and Fees as Unconstitutional

Advocacy groups encourage similar challenges across North Carolina

RALEIGH, N.C. – North Carolina’s practice of charging criminal defendants with an array of court fines and fees unjustly burdens low-income people and violates the state constitution, according to a motion filed today in Wake County Superior Court. The motion challenging the constitutionality of court costs is the product of a working collaboration between several nonprofit organizations including the ACLU of North Carolina and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

The state’s criminal justice system charges defendants with mandatory fines and fees for costs related to court, jail, community service, and more. These fees start at $180 but can reach into the tens of thousands and are used to fund various state agencies, even though the state constitution requires that most should fund the public school system.

Attorney Scott Holmes filed the motion in the case of Carol Anderson and Dale Herman, demonstrators arrested at the N.C. Legislative Building protesting House Bill 2. The motion challenges the constitutionality of court costs on the grounds that some are being used to fund the court system, not the local school system as required by the constitution. Article IX, Section 7 of the state constitution states:

“…all penalties and forfeitures and of all fines collected in the several counties for any breach of the penal laws of the State, shall belong to and remain in the several counties, and shall be faithfully appropriated and used exclusively for maintaining free public schools.”

The coalition has made the motion available as a template for other attorneys to use to challenge the constitutionality of court costs throughout the state.

The motion filed today is available for viewing and download at http://bit.ly/FinesAndFees

Attorneys interested in filing similar motions can find a template document at http://bit.ly/FinesAndFeesTemplate.

After the motion was filed in Wake County Superior Court, statements were issued by the following coalition partners:

Cristina Becker, Criminal Justice Debt Fellow at the ACLU of North Carolina:

“For far too long the legislature has gotten away with circumventing the state constitution to fund an array of state agencies on the backs of the poor. North Carolina’s excessive court costs have created modern-day debtors’ prisons that keep people in jail simply for being poor and have a devastating impact on communities across the state. We are offering this motion as a template for other attorneys throughout the state and encourage them to use it to challenge the unconstitutionality of court fines and fees in every jurisdiction.”

David Hall, criminal justice attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice:

“We must do everything we can to end the unconstitutional practice of funding our court system on the backs of the poor and indigent people of the state.  The burdens of court fines and fees disproportionately affect people of color, and it’s time to end this practice.”

Scott Holmes, attorney for Anderson and Herman:

“This is an important step in reversing the flow of resources in the school to prison pipeline.  Our Constitution requires that the fees collected in criminal cases shall fund the education of our children in public schools, not fund our courts.”

Lee County NAACP Meets with School Superintendent

FORT MYERS, FL. – Representatives from the Lee County NAACP and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) met with Lee County School Superintendent Dr. Greg Adkins on December 6 to discuss racial equity concerns.  

The NAACP filed a complaint against the school system with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in September pointing out that students of color make up the fast-growing majority of the school district and are:

  • more likely than white students to be suspended or expelled,
  • more likely to be referred to law enforcement for misbehavior in school,
  • more likely to be removed from the classroom and placed in alternative education programs,
  • more likely to be designated as having a disability,
  • more likely to be retained or drop out,
  • less likely to be enrolled in gifted programs, and
  • less likely to graduate.

At the meeting, community members from the NAACP and SCSJ offered a set of recommendations that Dr. Adkins can implement to address the racially discriminatory outcomes present in the school system.

SCSJ’s Ricky Watson, co-director of the Youth Justice Project, spoke with WINK News after the meeting to explain the complaint and why the Lee County School system must take action:

The full complaint filed by the Lee County NAACP with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights can be found at http://bit.ly/CivilRightsComplaint.

 

New Report: NC Juvenile Justice System Faces Major Challenges

Durham, N.C. — A report released today from the Youth Justice Project finds that the juvenile justice system is falling short for over 12,000 impacted children. Despite major policy advances like Raise the Age in 2017, North Carolina has a long way to go to ensure that all young people, especially youth of color, are treated fairly and equitably in our juvenile justice system.

The report highlights five major barriers facing North Carolina’s juvenile system and their solutions. These barriers include:

  • developmentally inappropriate limits on juvenile court jurisdiction,
  • demographic and geographic disparities,
  • inadequate representation in juvenile court,
  • lifelong collateral consequences stemming from juvenile court involvement, and
  • punitive school policies and practices that push students into the court system.

“While we are excited that North Carolina will soon end the practice of prosecuting all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, we must continue to push for evidence-based policies that will help all kids,” said Peggy Nicholson, co-director of the Youth Justice Project. “For example, young people – particularly youth of color – are all too often referred to our court system for behaviors that historically have been left out of the courts and could be more effectively addressed through other means.”

North Carolina could dramatically improve its juvenile justice system by increasing the minimum age of juvenile court jurisdiction from six to ten years old. Furthermore, school systems can reduce school suspensions, court referrals, and the associated identity disparities through the implementation of restorative justice practices and racial equity trainings. Additionally, increases in funding and specialization of attorneys representing children would ensure young people have adequate representation across the state when they are court-involved.

“We can dramatically improve the juvenile justice system here in North Carolina through a series of common sense policy changes that give our kids the opportunities they need while keeping our communities safe. We strongly encourage policymakers to review and implement these recommendations in order to ensure our young people are receiving the care they need,” said Ricky Watson, co-director of the Youth Justice Project.

Link to the Full Report: http://youthjusticenc.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/FINAL-Putting-Justice-in-Juvenile-System-10.5.17.pdf

Link to the Fact Sheet: http://youthjusticenc.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Handout-Juvenile-System-Report-Updates-10.26.17.pdf

SCSJ Launches Fair Chance Business Certification

Durham, N.C. — This week, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice launched the Fair Chance Business Certification. Similar to Living Wage certifications, this program celebrates businesses who are open to hiring people with criminal records. The major criteria for certification is “banning the box” — an approach of shifting questions about criminal records to later in the hiring process. This approach allows businesses to consider people for their qualifications first and not solely their history.

“The Fair Chance Business Certification is part of a major cultural shift that encourages businesses to view people for more than the sum of their worst mistakes. We envision a world where people are hired because they are simply the best person for the job,” said Kristen Powers, Advocacy Coordinator at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “There are plenty of lists out there already with companies that hire people with records. The goal of this certification, rather, is to create a community of businesses that are standing up for their employees and encouraging other businesses to do the same.”

All businesses are eligible for Fair Chance Business Certification. They can go to the Fair Chance Business webpage to fill out a demographic survey and submit a copy of their job applications to demonstrate that they have successfully removed initial questions about criminal records.

Upon certification, businesses will become part of a larger Fair Chance Business Community which will eventually include educational newsletters, lunch and learns, talking points, free promotional material, as well as connections to mentorships and best practices for advancing equitable hiring practices.

The inaugural group of certified business includes Ben & Jerry’s Chapel Hill, Principal Janitorial Services, and Bull City Olive Oil.

“We applied for certification because we wanted to show our commitment to the community. Many of these folks have already paid their debt to society. We should not shut them out of the workforce forever because of a past mistake. We are proud of our employees from all walks of life here. Their commitment to our mission is unmatched,” said Antonio Broom of Ben & Jerry’s Chapel Hill.

For more information on the certification, visit http://www.southerncoalition.org/program-areas/criminal-justice/fair-chance-business-certification/

SCSJ supports call to remove Confederate monuments, memorials, and flags at the courthouses in North Carolina

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice has signed onto a resolution drafted by the North Carolina Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Criminal Justice System that calls for the immediate removal of all Confederate monuments, memorials, flags, and other symbols and markers of racism and white supremacy, from all public spaces inside or outside of courthouses in the state.

The resolution recognizes that “visible and systemic markers of racism and white supremacy, including those commemorating the Confederacy, were erected outside courthouses and centers of government power specifically to reclaim those public spaces for the unjust causes the markers and symbols represent.”

While there is currently a state law prohibiting the removal of divisive symbols of racism and injustice, the resolution calls upon the North Carolina General Assembly to repeal the 2015 statute.

You can read the full resolution here:

 

NCCRED Resolution by Dustin on Scribd