The United States formally abolished “debtors’ prisons” — the incarceration of people who fail to pay off debts — nearly two centuries ago. But today in North Carolina, thousands of low-income people are in jail, trapped in a cycle of debt, or both, because they cannot afford the unconstitutional fines and fees that courts order them to pay when convicted of any crime, even as minor as a speeding ticket.

The cost and number of fines and fees have skyrocketed across North Carolina in recent years, thanks to a series of legislative changes enacted by the North Carolina General Assembly and the day-to-day decisions of judges who have too often bent to the legislative desire to turn the judiciary to debt collection.

In courtrooms across the state, there is no consistent standard for when and how fines and fees are imposed, and too many judges do not fulfill their constitutional obligation to inquire about an individual’s financial status before ordering them to pay fines and fees, as required by law. As a result, judges routinely order low-income North Carolinians — a disproportionate number of them people of color — to pay fines and fees that they cannot afford. Failure to pay will result in more fines, fueling a cycle of debt that forces people to forgo the basic necessities of life in order to avoid jail and collateral consequences.

In this racially-skewed, two-tiered system, the rich and the poor can commit the exact same offense, but the poor will receive harsher and longer punishments simply because they are poor. While some actors, from public defenders to state legislators to reform-minded judges, have fought for fairer processes and outcomes, too many North Carolina judges nevertheless routinely violate the rights of low-income people who appear in their courtrooms.

This report examines the history of those court costs, how North Carolina has sought to turn the judiciary from its role as a neutral arbiter of justice toward service as a state debt collector, and how the resulting unjust system criminalizes poverty, violates people’s rights, and preys on many of our state’s most vulnerable residents.