Criminalizing Poverty in N.C.

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Across North Carolina, poor defendants in criminal and traffic cases are charged fines and fees they can't afford. These costs accrue at every step of the criminal justice process and can add up quickly, even for minor offenses. Defendants who are unable to come up with the means to pay off this debt face additional penalties, including new fees, extended probation, license revocation and, incredibly, jail time--often for offenses too minor to warrant incarceration in the first place.

Our first report in our series on criminal justice debt, Court Fines and Fees: Criminalizing Poverty in North Carolina, uses defendants' stories, court observations and interviews with advocates, judges and public defenders to explore the ways fines and fees trap poor defendants in a vicious cycle of debt and punishment. We examine how fines and fees raise troubling questions of constitutionality, cast doubt on the fairness of our courts and infringe on judicial independence. We scrutinize claims about the necessity and cost efficiency of fines and fees and look at the factors that drove their rise in the state. We conclude with simple, straightforward recommendations that can be easily adopted by the courts.

Our second report focuses on the ways in which changes to the law have tied the hands of judges when it comes to waiving court fees and fines. Although both state and federal law frequently require the waiver of court fines and fees, the North Carolina General Assembly has worked steadily to limit judicial authority on this front. This intrusion on the authority of the courts violates fundamental separation of powers mandates and jeopardizes the rights of impoverished defendants.

We co-sponsored a conference, "Criminal Justice Debt: Punishing the Poor in North Carolina" that brought together national and state experts. A full house at NC Central's law school discussed ways to push back against excessive fines and fees. NC Policy Watch has more information on the conference and these reform efforts generally. We also co-sponsored a town hall in Chapel Hill on the impact of criminal justice debt locally.

About Court Fines and Fees

In North Carolina, all defendants in traffic and criminal court who plead guilty or are convicted must pay fees to the court system. These fees are administrative, intended to cover various state costs. The most common fee is the “general court of justice” fee. It and the smaller fees that come bundled with it total about $200. Additional fees--for pretrial detention, electronic monitoring, community service and even attorney's fees--might also apply, depending on the case. Defendants who pay late, bounce a check, pay on an installment plan or fail to appear in court pay additional fees. On top of fees, defendants may also have to pay fines and restitution.

Defendants in criminal cases are overwhelmingly poor. Court costs and fees can become a long-term financial burden. And 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--loss of a job, housing or benefits, for example--which make it harder for defendants to escape from debt.

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 to waive court costs and fees, but in the great majority of cases, they don't.

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

Source: NC Administrative Office of the Courts
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