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. Defendants who can't realistically pay their costs in one payment (or at all) become trapped in a vicious cycle of debt begetting more debt. At the same time, the punishment for nonpayment only serves to push them deeper into the hole.

Our first report on court costs and fees describes the operation of this two-tiered system of criminal justice in North Carolina. We'll turn to other, related topics in the coming months.

Court costs in North Carolina include a “general court of justice” fee, which is about $200, plus any number of other fees, depending on the specific case. Defendants who pay late, bounce a check, pay on an installment plan or fail to appear in court pay additional fees. Defendants also have to pay any fines and restitution that has been ordered in their case.

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 (see map below).

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

Source: NC Administrative Office of the Courts
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