In late April, a report from the Duke Law Center for Science and Justice found that in 120,000 cases each year, North Carolina’s criminal courts impose fees and fines that will likely never be repaid. More than 650,000 residents—one in 12 people who call the state home—have unpaid debt, the report continues. Most of them are minorities, and much of their debt arises from low-level traffic cases and infractions.
For those facing criminal charges, there are fees for being arrested; fees for spending the night in jail; fees for forensics; fees for experts to testify against you. If you don’t pay, you are fined. If you don’t pay the fine, you might be arrested and jailed—basically, debtors’ prison. And the cycle repeats.
In traffic cases, failures to pay costs or show up to traffic court lead to an indefinite driver’s license suspension. Right now, the report says, 1.25 million North Carolina residents—one in seven adults—have a suspended license due to a so-called failure to comply, or FTC, most for failing to appear in court, some for failing to pay traffic fines. Driving with a revoked license is a class 3 misdemeanor, which introduces a new set of fees.
As the INDY reported last March, the Durham Expunction and Restoration initiative, designed to tackle this very problem, dismissed more than 70,000 cases (most for traffic charges tied to license suspensions) and waived more than $200,000 in unpaid traffic fines and court fees for more than 1,200 people in its first three months. By January, the Center for Science and Justice report says, “$1.5 million in traffic-related fines and fees have been waived in Durham for 6,140 people (8,339 tickets).”
But statewide, the number of FTC cases is rising, the report says. Especially given the pandemic, the Center argues that court debts should be suspended, and, long-term, the General Assembly should give judges more flexibility to waive fees or should reduce or eliminate them altogether.
Along with its report, the Center uploaded to its website a massive dataset of FTC cases from the late 1980s through January 10 that allows you to dig into the numbers by county, age, race, and the kind of charge. And we did. We could have played around longer—there was so much to explore—but here are a few data points about Triangle counties that caught our eye.
Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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