At least hundreds and likely thousands of people are jailed every year in North Carolina because they cannot afford to pay court-ordered fines and fees, even though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to jail people for unpaid court debt, according to a new report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.
The report, At All Costs: The Consequences of Rising Court Fines and Fees in North Carolina, documents how a sharp increase in fines and fees resulting from legislative actions and inconsistent courtroom practices have transformed judges into debt collectors, creating modern-day debtor’s prisons that target low-income North Carolinians, disproportionately harm people of color, and trap thousands in a cycle of poverty. The report profiles several North Carolinians whose lives have been upended when they could not afford to pay snowballing debt that resulted from even low-level charges.
“We found that by systematically increasing the amount of money people must pay when they land in court, while making it harder for people to escape the burden of that debt even when they can’t afford to pay, North Carolina has trapped thousands of its residents in an inescapable cycle of poverty and even incarceration,” said ACLU of North Carolina Staff Attorney Cristina Becker, the report’s primary author and researcher. “Over two decades, North Carolina has forced judges to become debt collectors and sought, unsuccessfully, to fund state programs off the backs of the poor. As the North Carolinians whose stories we tell in this report make clear, this system preys on our state’s most vulnerable residents and does not serve the interest of justice. We hope that lawmakers and court officials will consider these recommendations to move our courts away from the harmful and inefficient criminalization of poverty.”
Between 2016 and 2018, the ACLU of North Carolina sought public records from all 100 counties in the state and conducted in-person court observations in four geographically diverse counties: Robeson, Edgecombe, Avery, and Mecklenburg. Only 57 counties shared information in response to public records requests, however, with much of the data provided being incomplete. The ACLU report says a lack of comprehensive statewide data is one of many barriers to understanding and addressing the full scope of these unjust practices.
The findings in the report include:
- The ACLU documented hundreds of cases of people jailed over unpaid court debt, despite incomplete statewide data: In 11 counties that responded to public records requests there were 296 reports of people arrested from unpaid court debt in just a six month period. In 412 court observations in four counties, the ACLU-NC itself documented 41 additional people who were jailed. In 110 observations in Robeson County alone, the ACLU-NC documented 32 cases of people jailed for unpaid court debt.
- People of color are jailed for court debt at much higher rates. More than 54 percent of those arrested in the 11 counties that responded to public records requests were Black, even though Black people compose less than 12 percent of the population in those counties.
- The collateral consequences of unpaid court debt, even if someone is not jailed, can be devastating. People who cannot pay off court fines and fees can lose their driver’s license, their right to vote, eligibility for anti-poverty programs, and more. Many North Carolinians are forced to make difficult, if not impossible, decisions about whether to sacrifice basic necessities in order to pay off court debt.
- The number and amount of fines and fees has exploded over the last 20 years. The typical base fee for most defendants has risen from $61 to $173, while the number of potential additional fees a person might be ordered to pay, such as $600 for a blood test or $250 to perform community service, has ballooned from four to 45. These funds do not all stay in the court system but are used to fund an array of state programs.
- Debt collection practices are a net financial loss for local governments. Counties spent an average of $1,158.66 to jail someone for an average outstanding court debt of $525.48. On average, a county spends more to incarcerate someone for court debt than that person owes in the first place.
- Judges often do not conduct constitutionally-mandated inquiries into a person’s financial situation before imposing court fines and fees. Defense attorneys are not always provided to people facing fines and fees, but even when they are, they often do not sufficiently advocate for the waiver of court fines and fees.
- The North Carolina General Assembly has made the problem worse by enacting laws that make it more difficult for judges to waive fines and fees and have been widely interpreted as efforts to intimidate and dissuade judges from waiving fees.
The report recommends ways that the North Carolina General Assembly, court officials, and others can began to unravel the complex web of laws, practices, and funding decisions that have contributed to the rise and unjust use of fines and fees.
Beyond eliminating or greatly reducing fines and fees altogether, the recommendations include:
Requiring judges to hold “ability to pay” hearings before imposing fines and fees,
- repealing laws that tie the hands of judges who wish to waive fees,
- mandating statewide data collection in order to better understand the scope of the problem, and
- increasing access to court-appointed attorneys for those facing the imposition of fines and fees.
In February, in Timbs v. Indiana, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Constitution’s prohibition on excessive fines applies to state and local governments.