The severe economic fallout from COVID-19 exposed a growing problem: North Carolinians saddled with unpayable court debt. While Chief Justice Cheri Beasley granted a temporary 90-day reprieve, the problem will remain when the pandemic ends.
During this emergency, North Carolina and other states have taken aggressive measures to help the unemployed, prevent utility shutoffs and late fees, and halt evictions. Far more must be done to provide people wholesale relief from court debt.
The numbers are staggering. My colleagues and I at the Center for Science and Justice at Duke have analyzed three decades of data from the Administrative Office of the Courts, and found that in over 1.72 million cases total – and 120,000 cases each year – judges have imposed costs that people cannot or do not pay.
More than 650,000 people, or one in 12 adults in North Carolina, currently have such unpaid criminal court debt, as we describe in a new report and data website. Many of these cases are years, even decades, old. Not only are most people unable to pay, but even if people save enough to pay the fines, the system is byzantine and impossible to navigate without a lawyer.
This debt may total well over $100 million. Why? Regardless whether someone has the ability to pay, judges impose hundreds of dollars of fees in even the most minor traffic cases. Lawmakers strongly discouraged judges from ever waiving fees.
The consequences for failing to pay can include loss of a driver’s license, which affects over 1 million adults in North Carolina, who then cannot legally drive to work, school, doctors or to see their families. People are jailed for failing to pay court fees: a virtual debtors prison in our state. This debt disproportionately burdens people of color of North Carolina.
Gov. Roy Cooper has prohibited utility companies from utility shut-offs and late fees, giving customers six months to pay any balances. Chief Justice Beasley suspended payment of fines and fees for 90 days. But California’s state taxing authority suspended collection of all criminal justice debt, as Oregon courts have also done. A range of other jurisdictions have stopped imposing criminal debt for the duration of this emergency.
North Carolina should do the same: Suspend all criminal court debt for the duration. More permanently, we need a law to end, as Virginia recently did and as other states have done, the entire practice of suspending driver’s licenses indefinitely for non-driving related reasons.
We need a law to allow judges to protect people’s constitutional rights not to be punished for being poor – and allow a judge to remit court debt if a person demonstrates inability to pay. We need laws to reduce or eliminate these fines and fees. We need a system for people to easily address court fines without a lawyer.
To undo decades of these abuses, we will need statewide investment in criminal debt relief and restoration clinics. We need our district attorneys to mass-dismiss old cases involving unpaid fines or remit the fines; several have done so. We need defense attorneys and prosecutors to ensure robust hearings regarding ability to pay and ensure that clients are not unnecessarily convicted of offenses that will result in unpayable court debt.
For far too long our courts have preyed on the poor, creating a cycle of unpayable court debt. During this emergency, we must finally put an end to these unconstitutional and harmful practices.
Brandon Garrett is the L. Neil Williams Professor of Law at Duke University School of Law. He directs the Center for Science and Justice at Duke.
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