Spiraling Criminal Debt

North Carolina in recent decades moved to a user- fee model allowing courts to impose any number of fines and fees when a criminal case is resolved through a plea or verdict. If a person does not pay, further costs may result. In this article, the author presents results from a series of studies in North Carolina exploring the consequences of criminal debt practices and provides recommendations for improving processes at the local, state and federal levels. 

Read the full report here

Key Findings:

  • Over 650,000 people, or one in twelve adults, in North Carolina, has unpaid criminal court debt.
  • Over 1.72 million cases involved unpaid criminal debt, amounting to 120,000 criminal cases each year. 
  • Of all driver’s license suspensions for a non-driving related reason 827,000 suspensions were for failure to appear in court, 263,00 for failure to comply or failure to pay traffic fines or court fees, and 135,000 for both.
  • Two-thirds of those experiencing license suspensions were Black or Latinx.  
  • Black people, and all non-white people, are more likely to have a license suspension than white people
  • People who make more than $50,000 are less likely to have a suspension than those who make less. 


  • Revenue generation should not be a goal of judicial or other public actors. Fines and fees should be geared toward public safety and welfare. 
  • Fines and fees should be graduated or modified to accommodate a person’s ability to pay. 
  • Minimize the use of fines and fees unless they serve clear public safety and welfare goals. 
  • Enhance procedural protections in the fines and fees process: presume that an indigent peron’s fees are waived, enable judges to waive or reduce fines based on inability to pay, presume indigence in certain circumstances, make payment plans available, and establish a fair and accessible system for relief that does not require legal representation.
Brandon L. Garrett
RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of The Social Sciences