Commentary

Why are state legislators forcing judges to jail people for being poor?

As those who have been following Policy Watch reporter Joe Killian’s recent series of stories on North Carolina’s broken cash bail system are well aware, debtor’s prison is an all-too-real phenomenon in our state. Between the perverse reality of people failing to make bail because it’s too expensive for the poor to afford and too low to attract the interest of profit-seeking private bail agents and the metastasizing problem of exorbitant court fines and fees that are driven by the legislature’s disinvestment in the courts, large numbers of low-income North Carolinians are finding themselves incarcerated simply for lack of cash.

Now, a new article from reporter Michael Cooper for the online magazine Scalawag makes clear that recent actions by the General Assembly to make it much harder for judges to waive fines and fees have made things much worse. This from “New North Carolina law lands poor people in debtors jails, even though judges could set them free”:

When a person is convicted of a crime in North Carolina, all manner of fines and fees are assessed onto their punishment: $147.50 as a standard fee, $12 for using the facilities, $4 to support retiring law enforcement officers, $10 for every day served in pretrial confinement.

A hundred dollars for impaired driving, $600 for a hospital lab fee, another $600 if an expert testifies, $200 for failing to appear in court, $250 for the pleasure of doing any community service ordered by the court….

Low-income North Carolinians often cannot afford these burdensome fees, which contribute to a cycle of poverty and incarceration. “Instead of taking them out of the criminal justice system, they’re keeping them in,” says [ACLU lawyer Christina] Becker….

In North Carolina, judges have the ability to lessen the financial burden imposed at sentencing and customarily help the elderly grandmother on a fixed income, the young student or service-member, and plenty of others facing hardship.

Judges may reduce the costs of expert witnesses, strike the penalty for failure to appear in court, waive fees at sentencing, revoke fees when a person’s default is in good faith, or convert the amount owed to a civil judgment. But it’s gotten harder.

In 2011, North Carolina’s General Assembly required “just cause” for waiving costs and a year later requested written findings in each case. Then, in 2014, legislators ordered the tracking of waivers by each individual judge (the latest report can be found here).

In 2017, the legislature prevented judges from waiving costs without first “providing notice and opportunity to be heard by all government entities directly affected”––meaning up to 615 different state and local agencies.

When the law passed in November, 2017, the change effectively ended a judge’s ability to waive court costs and fines because a local clerk couldn’t possibly notify every agency when relief was requested. But then North Carolina’s Administrative Office of the Courts took on the responsibility by mailing a monthly letter to the 615 agencies with a link to the state’s court calendar.

AOC’s actions are now being reviewed by Republican state legislators to determine if they comply “with the spirit of the provision.” But according to Becker at the ACLU, the law is a waste of time and energy. “The agencies are not coming to those hearings,” she says. “They don’t have the manpower. They know they’re trying to get blood from a stone.”

Let’s hope stories like this one and Killian’s — as well as events like today’s conference at NC Central on the criminalization of poverty — start to make a difference with state lawmakers on this vitally important issue.

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