The Brennan Center for Justice released a new report yesterday about the steep costs of criminal justice fines and fees — an issue that North Carolina is no stranger to.
The report found that fines and fees are an inefficient source of government revenue and the resources used to collect them could be better spent on efforts that actually improve public safety. Other findings were that judges rarely hold hearings to establish a defendants’ ability to pay, and so the burden of fines and fees falls largely on the poor; the costs to jail those who can’t pay is especially costly.
“The true costs are likely even higher than the estimates presented here, because many of the costs of imposing, collecting, and enforcing criminal fees and fines could not be ascertained,” the report states. “No one fully tracks these costs, a task complicated by the fact
that they are spread across agencies and levels of government.
“Among the costs that often go unmeasured are those of jailing, time spent by police and sheriffs on warrant enforcement or driver’s license suspensions, and probation and parole resources devoted to fee and fine enforcement. This makes it all but impossible for policymakers and the public to evaluate these systems as sources of revenue.”
The report recommends lawmakers pass legislation to eliminate court-imposed fees, and it states that courts should be funded primarily by taxpayers, all of whom are served by the criminal justice system.
North Carolina is used as an example in the report as a state that relies increasingly on fines and fees to fund basic operations. The state collects 52 separate fees, disbursing them to four state agencies and 611 counties and municipalities.
“It uses fees to fund half of the state’s judicial budget, as well as jails, law enforcement, counties and schools,” the document states. “Using fee and fine revenues to fund the judiciary can create perverse incentives with the potential to distort the fair administration of justice. When criminal courts become responsible for their own financing, they may prioritize the imposition of significant fee and fine amounts and dedicate substantial staff to collecting these sums.”
Other recommendations included instituting a sliding scale for assessing fines based on an individuals’ ability to pay, stopping the practice of jailing people for failure to pay and eliminating driver’s license suspension for nonpayment of criminal fees and fines.
Read the full report below, which is lengthy and very thorough with North Carolina featured throughout.