Benevolence Farm in Graham recently founded the Benevolence Farm Legal Fund, aimed at assisting formerly incarcerated women with fines and fees stemming from interactions with the legal system.
The fund is driven entirely by donations. The initial goal for the fund is $25,000 and will assist three women with legal fines and fees, which often limit formerly incarcerated women’s ability to transition back into society.
“The Benevolence Farm Legal Fund was started in response to several needs of formerly incarcerated women that were working with Benevolence Farm, is for legal issues that usually cannot be resolved, or are unlikely to be resolved, with a pro bono attorney or pro bono services, or that may be difficult to navigate pro se (on their own without representation),” Kristen Powers, executive director of Benevolence Farm, said.
Starting out, Powers said, the fund will provide two formerly incarcerated women with roughly $5,000 each to help with their child reunification case; the remainder will go to another formerly incarcerated woman seeking asylum.
Many of the fees and fines formerly incarcerated women are burdened with stem from: daily jail fees, child reunification costs, probation fees, fees against one’s driver’s license and various other legal expenses. These fees can be insurmountable for many formerly incarcerated women.
“I think what a lot of people don't realize is that fines and fees can start accruing as soon as someone has an interaction with the criminal legal system,” Powers said. “So, if someone is incarcerated in the local jail, if they are found guilty, they're racking up days in jail, which result in a daily jail fee; they may also be paying fees that go to a law enforcement retirement fund, training, professional development or core operations.”
Powers added that job opportunities for incarcerated women are few and far between, and if an individual can secure a job, it’ll often pay no more than $1 to $2 a day. As a result, these fines and fees tend to multiply rapidly.
“This is coming out of a system where they, basically, have been financially exploited and have no money to pay these [fines], but they can very well end up back in prison for not paying some of these fines and fees,” Powers said. “There's just a lot of legal barriers to reentry that are tied with financial barriers that make it very hard to reset and to take advantage of one’s second chances.”
Sometimes these fines and fees can balloon into quite large amounts of money – Powers mentioned a case they’d assisted with in which a woman was facing $9,000 in fines and fees and couldn’t get her license back because of it, keeping her from landing a job.
But even, what some would consider, fines totaling rather small amounts of money create obstacles for formerly incarcerated women trying to transition back into society.
“We still see a lot of women with even smaller amounts that might as well be $9,000, like $300 or $200, where they're trying to reinstate their license, but it's barred or suspended due to fines and fees.” Powers said. “That creates this, again, tough bind where people can't get to work because they can't drive their car, so they try to drive their car anyway and they end up with more legal repercussions for doing so while they're just trying to make a living.”
After the initial goal is raised and the three women are assisted, the fund will continue to assist formerly incarcerated women throughout the state.
“Beyond the $25,000, as it's available, funds will be distributed to formerly incarcerated women who reach out to us – this is probably going to be a first come first serve basis,” Powers said. “It's something we're still working out but, as we have funds available, we will be distributing them to formerly incarcerated women across North Carolina.”
More information on the fund, as well as how to donate, can be found here.