Commentary

Editorial: Debtors’ prison still a reality in 21st Century North Carolina

An editorial in this morning’s Charlotte Observer highlights and decries an all-too-common reality that persists in 21st Century North Carolina: debtors’ prison. As “Stop jailing people for being poor” explains, our state is still imprisoning huge numbers of people simply because they can’t afford to pay court fines and fees — fines and fees, it should be noted, that our tax-averse General Assembly keeps jacking up at a rapid rate. This is from the editorial:

“The poorest among us should not be responsible for funding the criminal justice system, nor should they be punished simply for being poor. That message is beginning to resonate in both Carolinas but needs to become a principle upon which more court officials and legislators abide.

In Mecklenburg County, judges are working with Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Debt Initiative to ensure that people who don’t belong in jail are no longer sent and stuck there because they are unable to pay fines on charges that aren’t supposed to include jail time. As The Observer’s Michael Gordon reported this weekend, Mecklenburg judges will start weighing defendants’ incomes and expenses, their housing status, and whether they can afford to pay for a lawyer. Given that more than half of defendants in North Carolina in non-traffic criminal cases were declared indigent last year – and that taxpayers pay the hefty bill to jail people who don’t belong there – the move is a wise one.

It goes against recent actions taken by the North Carolina General Assembly, which has made it harder for judges to use their discretion to find non-jail options for poor defendants. Legislators have increased court fees by 400 percent over the past two decades, and too many state agencies have come to rely upon the $700 million they generate for the general fund. That’s why it’s going to be difficult to reverse course. But other N.C. counties should follow Mecklenburg’s lead, even if it means more judges get placed on what court insiders call the ‘List of Shame’ by refusing to sit idly while the state encourages a debtors’ prison. Judges should be proud to be named to the legislatively mandated list, ensuring fair treatment of the most vulnerable. They should not feel shame for doing the right thing….

We should have never built a justice system that routinely treated the downtrodden unfairly so towns and cities could fund their growing budgets. Municipalities, courts and other government agencies must find constitutionally sound revenue sources and stop preying on the poor.”

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