When the Dollars Don’t Add Up to Sense

The Wilson Center releases new policy brief on criminal fines and fees in North Carolina

1 in 3 Americans has been directly impacted by fines and fees in NC. More than 650,000 North Carolinians have unpaid court debt. People of color make up 38% of the population but shoulder 48% of the debt.

One in three Americans has been directly impacted by fines and fees related to traffic, criminal, or juvenile court in the past ten years. More than 650,000 North Carolinians, approximately one in 12 adults, have unpaid criminal court debt.  

Earlier this year, the Wilson Center, in collaboration with the Fines and Fees Justice Center, released a report that revealed the widespread, devastating impacts of fines and fees. They can force residents to make choices between critical needs like food and childcare and paying their debt. This impact is particularly harmful for people of color.

Today, the Wilson Center releases a new policy brief, building upon that previous work, which outlines the scope of fines and fees in North Carolina and recommends ways the state can address these harmful impacts.

“The use of criminal fines and fees places an undue burden on poor people and people of color to fund government, which is not only enormously harmful to a large segment of North Carolinians, but also an inefficient way to actually raise revenue,” said report author and Wilson Center Policy Analyst Lindsay Bass-Patel.

To reduce the impacts of fines and fees, and improve outcomes for North Carolinians, the Wilson Center makes the following recommendations:

  1. Eliminate all fees.
  2. Require judges hold ability-to-pay hearings before imposing fines.
  3. Forgive outstanding court debt.
  4. Stop suspending driver’s licenses for failure to appear and failure to pay fines and fees.
  5. Reinstate driver's licenses that have been suspended.
  6. Collect data on fines imposed for all convictions.
  7. Until fees are eliminated, implement greater legal safeguards on the process of imposing and collecting fees, including not arresting people for unpaid court debt.

“These recommendations can improve lives for the 650,000 North Carolinians who currently have court debt, as well as the  others who may face fines and fees in the future," said Bass-Patel.

Read our full policy brief and recommendations.