YOU issue: Criminalization of poverty

The Fountain Fund lent Kevin Mellette around $2,500 to help him pay restitution.

eze amos The Fountain Fund lent Kevin Mellette around $2,500 to help him pay restitution. eze amos

Here’s what readers asked for:

I’d like to suggest a piece on the criminalization of poverty (which is essentially what is happening to people who are incarcerated and are low-income), and a look at what we do at the Fountain Fund, where we provide low-interest loans to the formerly incarcerated to help them get their lives back.—Erika Viccellio

C-VILLE Weekly has covered stories on this issue, such as last week’s update on the Legal Aid Justice Center’s attempt to stop the state’s practice of automatically suspending driver’s licenses because of unpaid court fines and fees. These suspensions are often unrelated to the crime itself and are made with no regard to the person’s ability to repay the costs. They perpetuate the cycle of debt, unemployment, and incarceration.

Former U.S. attorney Tim Heaphy had firsthand experience putting away lawbreakers, but was less familiar with what happened once they’d done their time. When he ran into a man he’d prosecuted, Heaphy learned how difficult it was for a felon to get his life back and how debilitating court debt was to becoming a productive citizen.

The man was “literally shackled by these fines and fees that were not connected with the crime,” says Erika Viccellio, executive director of the Fountain Fund, which Heaphy founded to help those returning from prison successfully reenter the community.

“The criminalization of poverty is a real thing,” she adds.

Heaphy launched the nonprofit Fountain Fund two years ago. He raised $500,000, and the fund made its first loan in May 2017.

Viccellio, who has worked with local nonprofits for the past 20 years, recently decided to focus on equity and justice. She says she’s learned that “mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow.”

In her two months at the fund, she says, “I’ve had so many shocking moments.” She learned that it costs $400 a month to have an ankle bracelet for home incarceration. “Are you kidding me—$400 a month?”

The Fountain Fund loaned that person money for the bracelet, and when it came off, made a second loan to help make a down payment on a car.

In the past 18 months, the fund has made 54 loans to people totaling $135,000. The average loan is $2,500 and the fund is pushing that to $3,000, says Viccellio.

“We’ve spent time with hundreds of people to get them connected with the help they need,” she says. That can be court-debt counseling, which can be daunting if it involves fines and fees from multiple courts. “Sometimes people just need help navigating.”

And the repayment rate? “One hundred percent,” says Viccellio. She admits that by bank terms, she’s had a few defaults. “If you’re talking to us helping us to understand why, we’ll work with you.” And that is a unique aspect of the program, she says, finding the right balance between accountability and working with people “when life happens.”

For many of the fund’s clients, “It’s about someone believing in” them, says Viccellio.

The Fountain Fund has caused her to imagine the difference these loans can make in people’s lives, as well as other possibilities. “What becomes possible for people without these fines and fees?”