PUBLISHED:April 22, 2020

New report from the Center for Science and Justice finds 1 in 12 North Carolinians are burdened by court debt

A new report and data website released April 22 by Duke’s Center for Science and Justice finds 650,000 North Carolinians - one in 12 residents - are burdened by court debt, much of it stemming from minor traffic infractions, and calls for the state to grant emergency relief during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The Explosion of Unpaid Criminal Fines and Fees in North Carolina” analyzes three decades of court data and finds that in over 1.72 million cases total – and 120,000 cases each year – criminal courts in the state have imposed costs that people cannot or do not pay. These debts, which disproportionately impact minority residents, have far-reaching consequences including driver license suspension, lowered credit scores, difficulty obtaining jobs, and possible jail time, making people with unresolved court debt especially vulnerable to economic hardship during the current national shutdown.

“For far too long our courts have preyed on the poor, creating a cycle of unpayable court debt,” said Brandon Garrett, the L. Neil Williams, Jr. professor of law, who directs the Center for Science and Justice.

“At a time when the courts themselves are closed, it is all the more unfair and incongruous to keep debts on the books that people cannot come back into court to address. During the COVID-19 emergency, we must put an end to these unconstitutional and harmful practices.”

Garrett called for the immediate suspension of criminal court debt in an opinion piece published on NC Policy Watch and made the following recommendations:

  • The suspension of all criminal court debt for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis;
  • An emergency debt relief order by the North Carolina Supreme Court;
  • An end to state practice of suspending driver licenses for unpaid court debt;
  • Legislation reducing or eliminating criminal court debt and expanding judicial ability to waive such fines when a person demonstrates inability to pay;
  • The dismissal of old cases involving unpaid fines and fees by district attorneys statewide;
  • Investment in criminal debt relief and restoration clinics

Some jurisdictions are still jailing people for unpaid debt, potentially exposing them to COVID-19, which is spreading in detention facilities, he noted. North Carolina reported its first COVID-19 prison death on Wednesday.