North Carolina counties are seeing a “net financial loss” from incarcerating people over unpaid court debt, a new report by the state American Civil Liberties Union says.
The report, “At All Costs,” looks at the consequences of rising fines and fees across the state. The ACLU submitted public records requests and observed hundreds of court sessions in an effort to understand how many people are being detained for unpaid court debt, the costs to counties, and the revenue that the state brings in from those fines and fees.
“On average, a county spends more money incarcerating a North Carolinian for court debt than that individual owes debt,” the report says.
The report tells the stories of people directly affected by these costs—including a single mother in Robeson County who had to use rent money to pay $275 in court debt, and a forty-two-year-old Edgecombe man who is still on probation four years after being released from prison because he couldn’t pay $1,300 in court debt plus a monthly $40 probation fee.
Over the past twenty years, the number of fees imposed during the District Court process has grown from four to forty-five, the ACLU says: “There are now fees associated with nearly every part of a criminal case.” For people who are indigent and get convicted, there’s a $60 fee for the appointment of an attorney. There’s a $20 fee for going on a payment plan to pay off debt, and a $250 fee if community service is imposed. For those who fail to appear in court, there’s a $200 fee and if they don’t pay their debt, that’s a $50 fee. (If the charges are traffic-related, they’ll also have their licenses suspended indefinitely.)
Court costs have also gone up—by 400 percent, UNC researchers found—and the state legislature has undertaken measures to make it harder for judges to waive fines and fees. The General Court of Justice Fee, which applies to all criminal cases, has increased from $61 in 1999 to $147.50 today. Much of this revenue goes to the state, rather than to specifically fund the court system. In the fiscal year 2016–17, $263 million in fines and fees were remitted to the state’s general fund, the ACLU report notes.
Not paying these fines and fees can cause a person to be held in contempt and jailed. Sitting in on court proceedings in four counties—Robeson, Edgecombe, Avery, and Mecklenburg—the ACLU found that, often, judges don’t inquire into a person’s ability to pay before imposing fines and fees, and that people are often kept under court supervision in lieu of fines and fees being waived.
The Supreme Court held in 1983 that judges must inquire into a person’s inability to pay court debt, and the North Carolina Constitution prohibits imprisonment over debt. Instead, the report describes judges imposing fines and fees as a default, and joking about sending defendants to jail.
The report makes several recommendations for legislators, judges, and administrative agencies. The legislature should eliminate fines—like the one imposed for a court-appointed attorney, reduce the General Court of Justice Fee by at least 50 percent, and expand access to court-appointed attorneys. Legislators should also repeal laws requiring judges who want to waive fines and fees to give notice to agencies that would lose out on revenue and requiring annual reports on how often judges waive fines and fees, the ACLU says.
The ACLU recommends that the Administrative Office of the Courts set clear standards for conducting ability-to-pay hearings, that judges waive fines and fees for those who don’t have the money, and that judges stop holding people in contempt for failure to pay.
“North Carolina must follow the lead of other states and work to end this two-tiered system of unequal justice in which the poor receive harsher, longer punishments for committing the same crimes as the rich, simply because they are poor,” the report says. “Lawmakers, administrative officials, and the courts should develop a more robust, rational, and equitable infrastructure that better documents these problems, accurately assesses people’s financial situation, provides indigent North Carolinians with an attorney at every step of the process, encourages judges to waive fees when appropriate, and ensures that no one in our state is sent to jail or prison simply because they are poor.”