When men and women come out of prison or jail in Virginia, they’re usually saddled with a criminal record, but that’s not all. Many have debt – court costs, fines and fees that can add up to thousands of dollars.
Now, a foundation in Charlottesville is offering low-interest loans to help pay off those debts, along with money to make a new financial start.
The Fountain Fund held a small celebration this week to announce big changes. The organization has been lending money to former prisoners for a couple of years, but it’s now raised half a million dollars to help prisoners pay off court costs and child support, start small businesses, get transportation and housing.
When Martize Tolbert announced the news, a crowd of about 50 people nodded approvingly.
“I don’t think you heard," he teased. " I did the research on this, and as far as the United States nobody is raising capital for justice served individuals! Than, like a cheerleader he shouted, "Let me say it one more time: We have met our challenge of $500,000!"
The group applauded wildly.
Tolbert, who’s now 39, is a graduate of Albemarle High School and the Virginia Department of Corrections where he did six years for selling drugs to help support his family.
“And I thought there was no coming back from the debt, from the court costs, from the restitution," he recalled. "You can’t make enough money to pay that back, so when you’re coming home, you’re kind of worse off than you were before.”
The former U.S. Attorney for Virginia’s Western District, Tim Heaphy, heard about this problem and felt obligated to do something.
“I’ve spent years in the criminal justice system, not thinking very much about what happens to men and women when they come out the other side," he explained. "Then I had a random encounter with somebody who had been a defendant in a criminal case that I had handled as a prosecutor. He couldn’t get his driver’s license because he owed all these fees and fines. He couldn’t get the benefits he was entitled to, and when learned that from him I thought, ‘That’s crazy. We as a community should invest in men and women that have returned from serving time in prison and just help them get to the starting line.”
If nothing else, he says, helping people achieve financial independence makes society safer. He chose the name – Fountain Fund -- after hearing an interview with a former slave from Charlottesville, Fountain Hughes, recorded in the 40’s and aired on NPR.
“He talked about how he never wanted to owe anyone anything, because he had been property," Heaphy said. "That was really meaningful to me.”
The fund already serves 115 people who are repaying loans of $250 to $15,000, but with donations from several philanthropists and two banks, the Fund hopes to help hundreds more.
Glenn Rust, CEO of Virginia National Bank, says the program may bring his company and Wells Fargo new clients.
“We’re about individual economic progress, and this really hits home, because when you come out of incarceration, economic progress is kind of stymied, so this fits right in with our mission,” he explained.
So far, the reach of the Fountain Fund is limited, but executive director Erika Viccellio says they’re planning to grow.
“Right now we’re serving a one-hour radius of Charlottesville, and the plan is to be in two other locations in Virginia in 2020 at some point, and then we’ll look at other options in 2021 outside of Virginia,” she said.
The Fund also announced plans to operate an emergency assistance program, suggested by 24-year-old Brandi Herndon who did time in the Charlottesville Albemarle Regional Jail.
“We help with gas, groceries, electricity, deposit and first month’s rent, really anything that you could find yourself in a hole about,” she said.
She and her friend George Kennedy are running this new part of the fund, joining Martize Tolbert on the Fountain Fund staff. In addition to providing grants and loans, the organization offers free classes in financial planning and money management.