As a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, Tim Heaphy ’91 put them in prison. Now a partner with Hunton & Williams, Heaphy recently started The Fountain Fund to help them when they get out. The nonprofit provides low-interest loans to the formerly incarcerated for such purposes as paying off court debt or work-related expenses, for example.
The idea came to Heaphy while renting a vehicle. A man working on the lot struck up a conversation.
“He said, ‘You don’t remember me?’” Heaphy recounted. “I said, ‘I’m sorry, sir, I don’t remember you, tell me your last name,’ and he told me his last name. I remembered he had been convicted of a drug conspiracy. He was a pretty substantial drug seller in Charlottesville. He had pled guilty in a case I handled. He got a 10-year sentence, and he served eight years. We started talking about what it was like when he came back to Charlottesville from his lengthy incarceration. He said the biggest problem was debt; he just needed money.”
Expenses related to imprisonment can include compounded court fees not just related to the offense, but also for accrued child support, for example. Leaving court expenses unpaid under Virginia law can result in driver’s license suspension and — for former inmates — a probation violation. (UVA Law alumni, professors and students recently challenged the driver’s license suspension law through a Legal Aid Justice Center effort.)
“He was in violation of his probation because of the fines, which meant he couldn’t get his Section 8 housing assistance, he couldn’t get food stamps, he couldn’t get disability — anything he would be eligible for, he couldn’t get because of the debt,” Heaphy said. “So I just started thinking, what could we do to help men and women who have these onerous financial obligations that are preventing them from being productive?”
Heaphy talked to his friends who work in criminal justice, formed a board and launched The Fountain Fund last year.
The fund made its first six loans in May to people in similar situations. The loans were for as low as $800 to as high as a little over $4,000. The repayment rate is at a fixed 5 percent interest, which goes back into the fund to help others.
Anyone formerly incarcerated can apply, without restriction based on residence, where the conviction occurred, the crime itself or the amount of time served.
“Their imprisonment could have been for a month, or it could have been for 20 years, it doesn’t matter,” Heaphy said. “We’re going to screen each person and take him or her on the merits of the situation.”
While there is no cap on how much an applicant can receive, Heaphy said he expects most loans to be in the $2,000-$3,000 range, based on the amount of debt individuals have reported.
In addition to making loans, The Fountain Fund provides programming, peer support and mentoring, while making referrals for other social services.
Martize Tolbert, a mechanic at a Charlottesville oil-change shop, is one of the people the fund has helped. Tolbert went to jail for four months last year on a probation violation related to unpaid court costs. The bill was up to $3,200 when he got out, and the state had revoked his license. Unable to drive, he had trouble getting to work — and paying his fines.
But a friend who is involved in community services recommended Tolbert to the fund, which paid the debt and got his license back.
“This assistance is coming from a former prosecutor, the last person you think is going to help you,” Tolbert said. “He’s the guy who locked you up. It’s an old, broken system. They punish you, and they keep punishing you. So it’s good that there are guys like Tim and organizations like The Fountain Fund that can help out. It’s definitely needed.”
The loans aren’t just about playing catch-up or covering basics, however. Heaphy said the fund will help people start small businesses as well. He said he is open-minded about how the money might be used because the project is something of an experiment; nothing quite like it exists. The fund will refine its approach based on analysis over time, he said.
Heaphy noted that among those who have donated to the fund since its founding last year are currently and formerly incarcerated persons, who have said they appreciate the effort.
UVA Law professor Rachel Harmon; Jasmine Yoon ’06, assistant director of annual giving for the Law School Foundation and a former assistant U.S. attorney; and Lisa Lorish ’08, an assistant federal public defender, are among the fund’s initial board members. Nicole Snyder ’06, a former assistant U.S. attorney, serves as the fund’s executive director.
Harmon said volunteering with the project is in line with her academic work, which focuses on ways communities can secure effective public safety more fairly and with less harm to individuals.
“I’m excited to be part of founding the fund,” Harmon said. “After serving time in prison, people face overwhelming financial obstacles. They have trouble finding jobs, they are saddled with debt from fines and fees, they have trouble building credit, and it is hard for them to raise capital. With small loans and a little advice, we can help people reach their financial goals, and every person who successfully reintegrates reduces costly recidivism and makes our community stronger.”
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.