Court Fines And Fees: Criminalizing Poverty In North Carolina


Indigent defendants that request a public attorney have to pay a $60 appointment fee abd an hourly attorney fee.

In the last 20 years, criminal and court fees have increased by 400 percent in North Carolina, and a large sum is disbursed to the state General Fund, which the state can draw from unrestricted to pay its expenses. Although North Carolina courts raised over $737 million from fines, fees, restitution forfeitures, and other receipts in FY 2015-2016, they are grossly underfunded. The significant increase in the number of fees that can be assessed correlates with the growing cost of the criminal legal system and the increase in the number of people under supervision. As a result of the growing costs, justice-involved North Carolinians are assessed “user fees.” These court-imposed fees lock people in a cycle of debt while depriving them of due process and equal protection of the law. When these fees go unpaid, it can lead to additional monetary sanctions, driver’s license revocation, probation extension, and jail time. This report summarizes the history and imposition of fines and fees in North Carolina, the impact of user fees on defendants, and the constitutional issues they raise. 

You can read the full text here

Key Findings:

  • Judges waive costs in only eight percent of cases statewide. 
  • All defendants in the criminal court are assessed a General Court of Justice fee of approximately $150 if convicted or if they plead guilty.
  • A defendant’s sentence is not discharged until all court costs are paid in full.
  • Payment of fines and fees is a condition of probation in North Carolina and a violation can cause probation periods to be extended or disqualify defendants from accessing public benefits.
  • 1.2 million drivers in North Carolina have had their driver’s licenses suspended for nonpayment of court debt.
  • Although the Supreme Court has held defendants cannot be incarcerated for nonpayment unless a judge has found it to be willful, judges have incarcerated defendants for probation violations, contempt of court, and failure to appear at a hearing.
  • North Carolina’s criminal fees and costs are not closely linked to expenses directly incurred; in FY 2015-16, Courts disbursed $266 million in fees to the state General Fund.
  • Many courts in North Carolina have a less than 50 percent collection rate for court debt.
  • Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, jailed 246 defendants with unpaid debt in 2009; the jail terms totaled over $40,000, and the county only collected $33,476 in court debt from them.


  • Judges should inquire about a defendant’s ability to pay before assessing costs.
  • Courts should develop standardized criteria to determine whether a defendant can afford fines and fees.
  • Courts should provide alternatives to fines and fees such as community service, drug/alcohol treatments, additional education, and job skill training.
  • Eliminate probation extension for defendants that have not paid all fines and fees and other penalties for inability to pay fines and fees.
  • Courts should provide counsel for all criminal cases.
  • Court systems should gather and produce information on how much court debt is owed, the length of time to discharge debt, and repayment rates.
Heather Hunt and Gene Nichol
North Carolina Poverty Research Fund