Criminalizing Poverty in N.C.

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In North Carolina, defendants in criminal court are ordered to pay a multitude of costs associated with their case. These costs accrue at every step of the criminal justice process and can add up quickly, even for minor offenses. Costs include a “general court of justice” fee, which is assessed against every defendant convicted in criminal court, plus any number of other fees, depending on the specific case. These can include fees for time spent in jail before trial, supervised probation, community service, and electronic home monitoring and more. Defendants who pay late, bounce a check, pay on an installment plan or fail to appear in court pay additional fees. These costs and fees are not part of the punishment but are a way for the state to raise revenue on the backs of marginalized and politically powerless people.

For defendants, who are overwhelmingly poor, court costs and fees can become a long-term financial burden. And because payment is enforced by the criminal justice system, the penalties for nonpayment can be severe. The practice that gets the most attention is the incarceration of defendants who can’t pay their court-ordered debts, often referred to as the revival of “debtor’s prison.” But poor defendants who are unable to pay can also remain trapped in the court system or lose their driver’s license. All these sanctions have downstream consequences which make it harder for poor defendants to get out from under their court debt and achieve financial stability.

The incarceration of poor defendants solely because they lack the funds to pay their fines and fees is unconstitutional. Judges are supposed to ensure that poor defendants aren’t sent to jail for this reason. But judges often don't conduct any inquiry into the defendant's ability to pay or, if they do, they apply unreasonable and hostile standards. As a result, the constitutional prohibition against debtor's prison is regularly violated across the state. Judges also have the ability o waive court costs and fees, but in the great majority of cases, they don't (see map below).

Our first report on fines and fees describes how they operate in North Carolina and the ways in which they harm poor defendants, their families and communities. In future reports, we'll turn to judicial independence and bail, so look for those in the coming months.

Waiver rate by county (click on county for more data)

Source: NC Administrative Office of the Courts
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