Our County’s Reform Challenges

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

By Nathan Boucher 

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered life in Orange County in many ways, but the county criminal justice system continues to process individuals.  That means we must continue the difficult social justice conversation about criminal justice reform.

While Orange County has been proactive in reforming its system and working locally to mitigate inequities haunting criminal justice across the nation, there remains work to be done.

Some of the most pressing criminal justice reform challenges in Orange County are addressed in detail by the director of the Orange County Criminal Justice Resource Department, Caitlin Fenhagen. She spoke from her own learned perspective and not as a county representative.

Here are her thoughts on those challenges for criminal justice reform:

On the disproportionate impact on people of color

A major factor … is disparities in policing in different communities nationwide.  [The Chapel Hill Police Department] publishes a quarterly report including data on the racial and ethnic demographics for arrests and traffic stops, which can be a tool in understanding patterns in policing and its effect on communities. 

This disparity in policing is also attributed to implicit biases, which are the attitudes that unconsciously shape an individual’s understanding and actions. UNC Prof. Dr. Frank Baumgartner found that black male drivers were 75 percent more likely to be searched and 51 percent more likely to be arrested than white male drivers in North Carolina using traffic stop data between 2002-2013. To address this glaring disparity, tools like racial equity training, hiring for diversity as well as qualifications and civilian review of municipal processes can be used to reduce the impact of criminal justice inequity on individuals of color.

On the disproportionate impact on low-income people

Excessive fees and costs, monetary bond guidelines and barriers to court attendance are factors impacting low-income individuals. Courts not addressing an individual’s ability to pay court-related fees significantly impacts an individual’s risk of failing to comply, incarceration and a cycle of debt. 

In response to increased costs imposed by traffic cases, Orange County has created a driver’s license restoration program and Chapel Hill has pioneered the creation of a debt fund program to assist residents with justice debt. Even with these programs, barriers like childcare and inaccessible transportation can have a major effect on one’s ability to attend their court date.

Providing programs like childcare at courthouses, free transportation and reducing the number of court dates an individual is required to attend can reduce the disproportionate impact on low-income individuals in our community.

On criminalization of behavioral health

Inadequate mental health and substance use disorder services and support in the community contribute to the criminalization of many individuals. Around 25,000 individuals with serious mental health conditions enter North Carolina’s jails every year. Without the resources to attend residential treatment facilities or access affordable housing, individuals struggling with mental health issues or substance use disorders lack much-needed stability and support and frequently re-enter a justice system ill-suited to their complex needs and that has the likelihood of creating further trauma. 

Increasing crisis and treatment services in our community, accessible housing for those recovering and crisis intervention training for all law enforcement officers can help deflect individuals from the justice system towards more helpful supports.

On reducing incarceration for low-level offenses

Overall incarceration also needs to be reduced beginning with a commitment to harm-reduction policies. This includes not criminalizing municipal ordinance and deflecting non-violent low-level offenses that stem from issues like homelessness or behavioral health. In providing stability like housing, bond policies that address risk and inability to pay cash bail, and using incarceration as a last resort, initial offenses as well as recidivism can be reduced.

Fenhagen says local residents can inform ourselves on our community’s criminal justice issues. In questioning both stakeholders and elected officials, we can hold all members of the system accountable. We can advocate to help facilitate change in our criminal justice system. 

“We have many innovative programs and policies in place,” Fenhagen said. “Yet we continue to see these issues here, and many more, and as a result, the work continues and the need for funding and supporting evidence-based best practices that will help us reduce these challenges remains a priority.” 

Nathan Boucher is a Federal Research Health Scientist, Center of Innovation to Accelerate Discovery and Practice Transformation (ADAPT), Durham VA Health System HSR&D, Assistant Professor, Depts. of Population Health Sciences & Medicine (Geriatrics), Duke University School of Medicine, and a faculty member at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

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