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New report: Court fines and fees are criminalizing poverty in North Carolina

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[Editor’s note: The issue of constantly rising court fines and fees has long been a big problem in North Carolina. Now, a new report released today by the North Carolina Poverty Research Fund at the University of North Carolina entitled “Court Fines and Fees: Criminalizing Poverty in North Carolina,” [2] documents that matters have reached crisis levels. Through a combination of sobering real life stories and a treasure trove of data, researchers Heather Hunt and Prof. Gene Nichol explain how North Carolina is, quite literally, criminalizing poverty through the imposition of burdensome fines and fees that millions of people cannot afford.

The following is from a subsection of the report entitled “Perpetual Debt”:

Most criminal defendants are poor. Nationally, about 80-90% of those charged with a criminal offense are poor enough to qualify for a court-appointed lawyer. Around 20% of jail inmates report having no income before they were incarcerated and 60% earned less than $1,000 per month (in 2002 dollars, about $16,000 a year now). Almost a third of defendants are unemployed before their arrest. Many defendants are disadvantaged in other, related ways. In North Carolina, 30% of prison inmates have no more than a ninth-grade education; 99% are, at most, high school graduates.20 Seventy percent of newly arrived prisoners screened for chemical dependence in North Carolina need substance abuse treatment. A state Department of Correction survey found that 36% of people entering prison had been homeless at some point, and 7% had been homeless immediately before imprisonment. The primary reasons given for homelessness were unemployment, substance abuse and a previous criminal conviction.

Court costs disrupt lives already complicated by poverty and dislocation. ‘For lots of people, fines and fees are worse than the conviction,’ one expert commented. ‘The thinking goes, “I can keep my job with the conviction, but I lose my housing with fees.”’ Fines and fees of a few hundred dollars can present a substantial hurdle—and several studies show that court debt is often worse.”

Click here [2] to read the full report and scroll down for a note from one of the authors.]

Court Fines and Fees: Criminalizing poverty in North Carolina – An introduction

In trial courts across North Carolina, poor criminal defendants are regularly and systematically billed for an array of fines and fees they can’t afford. Fees are imposed at almost every step in the criminal justice process, starting before conviction and extending for months or years after sentencing.

As we detail in our report, Court Fines and Fees: Criminalizing Poverty in North Carolina [2], defendants unable to pay these accumulating court costs risk triggering a cascade of draconian penalties: additional fees, revoked driver’s licenses and jail time, often for offenses too minor to warrant incarceration in the first place. The result can be surreal and cruel. Defendants unable to pay their fees are sanctioned in ways that make it even harder for them to escape their criminal justice debt. For them, fines and fees constitute an ongoing poverty trap.

One Orange County defendant who had previously been jailed for failure to pay court fees explained how she lives in fear of being incarcerated again. If that happens, her husband may have to quit his job to take care of their kids. Then, she frets, they will likely lose their home. “The whole thing leaves my family feeling hopeless,” she said, “like we’ll never get back on our feet.” It feels like a cycle. “We’ll never be able to pay and will always be burdened with these costs.” It is “almost like a set-up, they know I won’t be able to pay.”

This report is the first in a series of six to be issued by the North Carolina Poverty Research Fund exploring the criminal justice practices that work to criminalize poverty in our state. Through legal analysis, defendants’ stories, court observations, and interviews with advocates, public defenders and judges, we show how criminal court fines and fees work in North Carolina to burden poor defendants, and their families and communities. We examine how 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.

We hope you find this report illuminating.

-Gene Nichol

Gene Nichol is the Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina School of Law. Heather Hunt is a Research Associate at Carolina Law. The research and publication work of Nichol, Hunt and their colleagues is supported by the North Carolina Poverty Research Fund of the University of North Carolina School of Law.