Unpaid court fees and fines affecting one in 12 North Carolina residents are adding to the burden of coping with the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report from the Center for Science and Justice at Duke University Law School.
The “explosion of debt” has disproportionately affected minority residents, said the author of the report, Duke Law professor Brandon Garrett, who is calling on state courts and legislators to offer immediate and long-lasting relief by forgiving or canceling the debt.
The state is faced with a “public health and economic crisis,” added Garrett, who is director of the Science and Justice Center.
Many of the accumulated bills—the bulk of them from minor traffic infractions—“likely never can or will be paid,” Garrett wrote.
Some of the relief recommendations cited include suspending all criminal court debt for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency, and enacting the Second Chance Act (2019).
“For far too long our courts have preyed on the poor, creating a cycle of unpayable court debt,” Garrett says in the report.
“At a time when the courts themselves are closed, it is all the more unfair and incongruous to keep debts on the books that people cannot come back into court to address. During the COVID-19 emergency, we must put an end to these unconstitutional and harmful practices.”
In light of the pandemic, current temporary measures put in place by North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper included postponing court hearings and extending payment deadlines.
Failures to Comply (FTCs) notices are not to be entered into a personal case file so the Department of Motor Vehicles cannot issue driver’s license suspensions.
Garrett welcomed the temporary measures but argued that they “must be made more permanent and effective.”
What’s more concerning, according to Garrett, is that some North Carolina jurisdictions are still jailing people for unpaid debt, “potentially exposing them to COVID-19, which is spreading in detention facilities.”
The Center for Science and Justice researchers analyzed three decades of North Carolina court data, combing through file after file.
“The result is a cycle of debt,” the report says, “Nonpayment leads to more fines for not paying; unpaid tickets lead to driver’s license suspensions and further fines and charges for driving with a revoked license.”
The COVID-19 crisis has further brought these inequities to light, as the researchers concluded that over 65,000 residents — or one in 12 residents — has unpaid court debt; one in seven residents have a suspended driver’s license for failure to pay fines and fees or for failure to appear in traffic court.
These failures to comply with paying can have lasting financial impacts for years, the report said.
As an example, the Center for Science and Justice advocates cite that there was a hearing conducted in January 2019 to dismiss a ‘speeding in a highway work zone’ case from 2000. It’s no wonder that these fines and fees follow people around for decades, piling up and exacerbating the monetary penalty, the researchers explain.
Moreover, criminal debt falls disproportionately on African-American and Latinx residents in North Carolina. In fact, the researchers cite that “the demographics of people who owe criminal debt is almost the reverse of that of the state as a whole.”
Of the approximately 650,000 people with current FTCs, over half (or 324,000 people) are African Americans, despite only making up just under one-quarter of North Carolina’s population, the report details.
Furthermore, it’s not that North Carolinians don’t want to pay their debts it’s that in many cases, they simply can’t afford to pay, the researchers explain.
In all criminal cases, the courts impose a “General Court of Justice” fee that was $147.50 in district courts as of December 2019, with an additional $5 charge for an arrest and $10 for each day spent in jail.
A $200 fee is imposed for failures to appear in court, even for missing a traffic-related case hearing. An additional $50 fee is imposed for failure to pay fees within forty days.
Along with making the temporary coronavirus relief measures put in place by Governor Copper permanent, the Center for Science and Justice researchers suggest statewide solutions that include passing the Second Chance Act (2019).
Passing the Act would end, as other states like Virginia have, “the entire practice of suspending driver’s licenses indefinitely for non-driving related reasons,” the report cites.
They suggest that statewide, judges should have the power to look into the fact of whether or not a person can pay, and remit court debt whenever a person demonstrates inability to.
On a local level, “District Attorneys should mass-dismiss old cases involving unpaid fines and fees,” the researchers also suggest, citing the Durham Expunction and Restoration Program (DEAR) that helps to restore driving privileges for Durham residents who had that taken away because of an inability to pay.
“With their debts forgiven, these individuals can now get a drivers license,” Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry is quoted saying in the report from when he was making a motion in January 2019 to remit fines and fees.
“They can get insurance. They can go to work and to school. They can participate fully in the economic and social vitality of our community.”
The full report can be accessed here.
Andrea Cipriano is a staff writer for The Crime Report