Opinion

In NC, court costs create debtors’ prisons

(AP photo)
(AP photo)

In 2003, Steven Edwards got into a car accident that turned his world upside down, claiming his left leg and the life of his brother. A lifelong resident of Edgecombe County, where more than a quarter of people live below the poverty line, a devastated Edwards struggled to find work, fell on hard times, and eventually found himself entangled in the criminal justice system, convicted on drug charges in 2012, and incarcerated.

When Edwards came home in 2014, his financial woes not only persisted, but were made substantially worse by the state of North Carolina, which slapped him with a bill: $1,354.50 in court-ordered fines and fees, plus an additional $40 a month for the cost of his probation.

Without a leg, and with a young daughter at home and a criminal conviction on his record, Edwards struggled to find work, relying on his $725 disability check to cover rent, utilities, and other family expenses. One year after leaving prison, Edwards was sent back to jail for 90 days simply because he could not afford to pay his court debt.

The concept of “debtors’ prisons” may seem outdated; indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to jail someone who cannot pay court debt. But today in North Carolina, judges send at least hundreds and likely thousands of people to jail every year because they cannot afford to pay off the fines and fees that people are ordered to pay when they are convicted of any offense, even as minor as a speeding ticket.

Edwards is one of the North Carolinians I met while researching a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, At All Costs: The Consequences of Rising Court Fines and Fees in North Carolina.

Through public records requests to all 100 North Carolina counties and hundreds of court observations in four geographically and demographically diverse counties — Edgecombe, Avery, Robeson, and Mecklenburg — we found that North Carolina has trapped thousands of its residents in an inescapable cycle of poverty and even incarceration. Over two decades, changes to state law and bad courtroom practices have turned judges into debt collectors and sought, unsuccessfully, to fund state programs off the backs of the poor, systematically increasing the amount of money people must pay, while making it harder for them to escape the burden of that debt when they can’t.

Initial court costs are now $173, while the number of 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.

While this problem is statewide, people of color, like Edwards, who is African American, 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 of those counties.

The collateral consequences of unpaid court debt, even for those not jailed, can be devastating. People can lose their driver’s license, right to vote, eligibility for anti-poverty programs, and more.

The sad irony is that debt collection ends up losing money for local governments. We found that counties spend more to incarcerate someone for court debt ($1,158.66 on average) than that person owes in the first place ($525.48 on average).

This system is mean-spirited, wasteful, and unconstitutional, and it has to end. Our report recommends ways that the General Assembly, court officials, and others can begin to address its harms. Legislators, for example, should repeal laws that tie the hands of judges who wish to waive fees. Judges must hold “ability to pay” hearings before imposing fines and fees. And people who face fines and fees should have better access to attorneys.

Poverty should never be a crime. But until state leaders act, it will continue to be in North Carolina.

Cristina Becker is a staff attorney for the ACLU of North Carolina. You can read her report at acluofnc.org/atallcosts

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