The Explosion of Unpaid Criminal Fines and Fees in North Carolina

The amount of debt owed to North Carolina’s criminal courts has increased at a staggering rate. This report gives a scope of how much debt is uncollectible, identifies the people in the state most harmed by the current system, and pinpoints the case types that yield the lion’s share of this debt. The text describes the role failure to comply or FTCs play in exacerbating the financial burden and overall strain borne by North Carolinians who already cannot afford to pay their fines and fees. The authors offer permanent, statewide solutions to counteract the financial instability and cyclical justice-involvement nature perpetuated by North Carolina’s criminal courts, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

You can read the full text of the report here.

Key findings
  • One in twelve North Carolinians currently owe court debt in criminal cases.
  • The outstanding amount of debt is at least about $147 million considering the 657,788 cases in the district court in which $173 of fees are automatically assessed and the $50 fee is tacked on for failure to comply.
  • The text cites a case from 2001 regarding a “failure to stop at a red light” violation that was still being adjudicated in January 2019 in Durham County. This example illustrates how long a criminal case can drag on if an individual cannot afford to pay and a failure to comply is entered in their case.
  • An overwhelming portion of the failure to comply charges are held by the Black community, specifically 324,000 people. Only 240,000 are carried by White people and over 54,000 by Latinx persons– these proportions are contrary to the demographic profile of North Carolina.
  • For traffic offenses, an FTC will lead to an indefinite suspension of a driver’s license.
  • One in seven, or 1.25 million, North Carolinians had a suspended license due to failure to pay costs or failure to appear in traffic court.
  • Suspension of all criminal court debt for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency, and emergency debt relief from the North Carolina Supreme Court for at least 6 months.
  • Legislation to end the entire practice of suspending driver’s licenses indefinitely for non-driving related reasons.
  • Passing legislation that reduces or eliminates criminal court fines and fees and expanding judicial ability to waive such fines and legislation authorizing judges to remit any court debt whenever a person demonstrates inability to pay.
  • Implementation of a readily accessible system for relief that does not require representation by a lawyer.
  • District Attorneys should mass-dismiss unresolved cases involving unpaid fines and fees and/or remit debt in groups of cases.
  • Defense attorneys and prosecutors should ensure robust hearings regarding ability to pay and ensure that clients are not unnecessarily convicted of offenses that will result in unpayable court debt.
  • Statewide investment in criminal debt relief and restoration clinics.
William Crozier, Brandon Garrett, and Thomas Maher, Duke University School of Law
Duke University School of Law, Center for Science and Justice