Waiving Criminal Court Fees Prevents Harms of Civil Debt


Judges ordered more than $94.5 million of criminal financial obligations docketed to civil judgments between 2017 and 2021.

North Carolina law allows judges to order the conversion of financial obligations to civil judgments. Although doing this may protect justice-involved people from driver’s license suspensions, an extension of probation, and additional jail time, they often unknowingly open themselves to the seizure of their state tax refunds, loss of real estate or their equity in it, barriers to expunging their criminal record, and difficulty finding housing and employment. This report expounds on the relationship between using the civil legal system to enforce payment of criminal financial obligations. Researchers reviewed files from the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) from January 2017 through December 2021 to determine the number of cases converted from criminal to civil judgments, their collection rates, and the impact of collecting criminal monetary obligations civilly. The report later provides recommendations for the AOC and practitioners to reduce harm to justice-involved people from court debt.

You can read the full text here

Key Findings:

  • Only 6 percent of the attorney fees converted to civil judgments were collected between 2017 and 2021.
  • Civil debt doubles every 12 years if not paid because interest accrues at North Carolina’s legal rate of interest, 8 percent. 
  • Once court debt is transferred to a civil judgment, it cannot be waived or remitted regardless of one’s ability to pay.
  • A consequence of a civil judgment is it may make it difficult to sell or transfer real estate.
  • North Carolina can seize a defendant’s state tax refund if they have a civil judgment. 


  • Courts and practitioners should promote waivers to alleviate defendants’ financial burdens instead of converting criminal justice debt to a civil judgment.
  • Inform defendants of the consequences of docketing civilly.
  • Improve data collection in the civil and criminal legal system.
Rochelle Sparko, Peter Smith, Whitley Carpenter, Laura Webb, & Heather Hunt
The North Carolina Justice Center, Forward Justice & The Center for Responsible Lending