Fines & Fees that Undermine Fairness in the Justice System

After the debacle of Ferguson, Missouri, there was a lot of attention given to the reform of fines and fees. A Commission was established, lead by the Chief Justice of Ohio. The National Association of Court Managers, the Conference of Chief Justices, and the American Judges Association–among a lot of other national organizations–expressed a desire to reform what is happening to our courts.

Out of control fines and fees arguably are partially or wholly our fault. Court leaders complained when enough “credit” was given in return for the amount of revenue courts generated. This was particularly true of limited jurisdiction courts. Surcharges started to be added. In one state, a surcharge was added to fund building a new state law school, but the appetite for funding the courts was a bit limitless. When judges rebelled, legislators responded. In Minnesota there was even a bill which provided that if the judge did not impose the fee, the clerk had the authority to do so over the judge’s objection. (A proposition of dubious constitutionality.)

And so we move to North Carolina:

A new North Carolina law [recently took] effect that is designed to hamstring the ability of judges to waive fines and fees for poor people.

Critics say the law will mean jail time for more poor people who can’t pay court costs that start at $179 for a seat belt violation and can easily surpass $1,000.

The law is believed to be the first of its kind in the country. It runs counter to reform efforts in other states that are attempting to reduce the number of people jailed because they are unable to pay fines or fees or make bail.

The new law is unusual in other ways: no lawmaker will take credit as sponsor, and no formal input was solicited from the entity most affected, the state court system.

The measure seems crafted by the Republican-controlled General Assembly to maneuver around a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Bearden v. Georgia, in which the court held that people cannot be jailed simply because they are too poor to pay fines and fees. Judges can waive costs if the failure to pay is not willful.

North Carolina’s new law would not explicitly prohibit waivers for the poor, but would throw up a serious impediment, requiring judges to give 15 days notice to all affected agencies before issuing a waiver.

In North Carolina, that would be a lot of notices. An offender in the state is subject to a vast array of fees, from $5 for being arrested to $200 for failing to appear. The state charges a fee of $7.50 to underwrite the police and sheriff retirement funds and a fee of up to $40 a day for taking up space in jail. Perhaps inevitably, there is a $50 fee for failing to pay a fee.

In all, 52 fees are routed to four state agencies and 611 counties and municipalities.


For the full Marshall Project article on the North Carolina law, go here.

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