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$71K gift will help with campaign to end debtors’ prison

Ken MammarellaGovernment, Headlines

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(Tingey Injury Law Firm photo from Unsplash)

A new effort to help Delawareans pay various court-imposed fines and fees as they navigate their way to better lives just got a big financial boost.

The Wilmington Alliance has given $71,000 to replenish the Friendship House Fines Fund.

The money will go to “lifting capias, covering new state IDs, new state driver licenses and/or Delaware birth certificates or other costs that impede individuals’ movement through the expungement or pardon process,” the alliance announced. The money won’t go parking tickets, speeding tickets, back child support or other circumstances unrelated to expungement and pardons.

“A capias is the general name for several types of writs, the common characteristic of which is that they require the officer to take a defendant into custody,” according to the Pretrial Justice Institute.

“Expungement is the process by which a record of criminal conviction is destroyed or sealed from state or federal record,” according to the American Bar Association.

“An expungement order directs the court to treat the criminal conviction as if it had never occurred, essentially removing it from a defendant’s criminal record as well as, ideally, the public record.”

We cannot realistically say that we are working to help people have a second chance in life when they cannot advance through the expungement process because they are not able to pay court fees,” Renata B. Kowalczyk, CEO of the alliance, said in a news release.

The system is designed to hold people accountable for their actions; however, the level of accountability required can be an impossible bar to reach for so many in our state,” Kim Eppehimer, Friendship House CEO, said in the release. “Our goal is to help break down systematic barriers in front of people so they can keep moving towards achieving their own goals.”

The fund relies on donations, and it was emptied to spend more than $46,000 to help more than 200 people.

“The amount of funding support per person may vary, depending on a specific request and need,” said Renee Bennett, director of development and marketing for the alliance. “Therefore, we estimate that the partnership funding should help approximately 200 individuals over two years.”

The alliance (the result of the 2019 merger of the Wilmington Renaissance Corp. and Wilmington Leaders Alliance) and Friendship House (which since 1986 has been tackling homelessness) also announced a two-year partnership covering that gift.

The fund is also a partner of the Delaware Campaign to End Debtors’ Prison, which began in 2019. Such fines and fees “too often lead to financial insecurity, loss of employment and imprisonment,” the campaign says. “We believe that poverty is not a crime and that an inability to pay should not result in a harsher penalty.”

A 2022 Delaware law eliminates various fees and makes other reforms that moved Delaware from 47th to 22nd on the National Center for Access to Justice Justice Index. Delaware scores 38 on a 100-point scale scale. The lowest is South Dakota, at 11; the highest is Maryland, at 65.

The Delaware law called for a new group to study fines and fees, and the campaign estimated that passing that law would reduce revenue by $3 million to $7 million.

The campaign calls for establishing “a reliable source of income for the government functions currently funded through fees and assessments.” Taxes are an obvious source.

A 2022 factsheet prepared by the campaign says that 20,679 driver’s licenses were suspended for nonpayment in 2017, and 129 were imprisoned for nonpayment in the first half of 2018.

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