In recent years, the criminal justice system has been a major topic of concern for Americans. Numerous studies have exploited the harsh and unfair treatment of individuals based on socioeconomic characteristics. The North Carolina Poverty Research Fund, wanting to evaluate the current condition of the system in the state, sponsored the University of North Carolina School of Law to conduct a case-study on the subject.
The first report out of six was released last month and specifically focused on court fees and fines. Some of the statistics researchers found were that 80 to 90 percent of those arrested are poor enough to qualify for a court-appointed lawyer, 20 percent of those in jail had no official income at the time of their arrest and 36 percent of those in jail were homeless at least once before being arrested. With these statistics, researchers concluded that almost everyone who was arrested would have at least some difficulty paying off the court fees and fines.
Punishments for not paying are severe and often can be more harsh than the original crime committed. Such was the case with a defendant, whose story is retold by former Durham County Chief District Judge Marcia Morey. The defendant had just been arrested for driving with a revoked license, which had been taken due to a speeding ticket he was unable to pay. So now, with the original fine, a revoked license, the fine from that and a new offense, the defendant debt and charges were adding up. Additionally, the court was unable to provide the defendant with an appointed lawyer because the State Assembly limited the amount of crimes that a lawyer can be requested for. While some of the fines and fees were ultimately waived, the defendant still carried a heavy financial burden.
Regarding the defendant as well as those with similar experiences, Morey spoke about the state’s criminal justice system. “Think of it, the great percentage of criminal defendants are poor but every step of the judicial process involves money, starting with the bond,” said Morey in an interview with NC Policy Watch. “In this system, you need money, it all turns on money, but most defendants don’t have it. Where’s the fairness in that?”
While fines and fees are used as punishments and prevention of crime, in some instances they have had adverse effects. One man fell behind on his child support payments and was taken to court. Having to now deal with child support and court fees, he resorted to selling drugs. When asked about his situation, he remarked: “Why not do more crimes if you’re already in trouble?”
These examples, along with several more in the report, show the need for legislative change. North Carolina’s current criminal justice system is setup like a trap, harming the most those who can’t afford to lose the least. In times of desperation, these situations can cause people to make bad and harmful decisions just to avoid worse punishments. Within the coming years, substantial reforms hopefully will be proposed and passed to aid the poor in court.