Shouldn't go to jail 'just because they're poor:' ACLU rips NC court costs

A new report released by the ACLU of North Carolina is critical of the state's handling of cases involving unpaid court debt.

According to its findings, in 11 counties that responded to public records requests, there were "296 reports of people arrested from unpaid court debt in just a six-month period." Additional court observations uncovered dozens of more reports.

"I went and served my time. I came home. Broke the law no more. Trying to do what I'm supposed to do, but you got these fines hanging over my head that you gave me when you sent me to prison. When he's released you have to pay this, pay this, pay that, pay this, pay that. But you can't pay it. But you're trying to do right though," explained Steven Edwards, who was incarcerated for his initial offense from 2011 to 2013.

Edwards said he went back to jail for more than a month because of his inability to pay court fines and fees.

"I can't work, so I'm on a fixed income -- so if my bills at home exceed more than I'm already getting, how can I afford to pay the courts?" asked Edwards, who is disabled and serves as his family's main provider.

The report found that fines and fees associated with sentences have increased significantly during the past two decades, with the "base fee for most defendants" rising from $61 to $173. Additional fees can range from blood tests or mandatory probation classes.

"It's part of the judge's responsibility to dole out a fair sentence, and if someone is going to jail just because they're poor -- that's not fair," said Cristina Becker, an ACLU of North Carolina staff attorney.

As part of its recommendations, the ACLU of North Carolina calls on lawmakers and judges to take a number of steps to reduce the number of people going to jail over unpaid court costs.

They include requiring judges to hold "ability to pay" hearings prior to imposing such fines and fees, increasing access to court-appointed attorneys for people facing such penalties and repealing laws that limit judges ability to waive such fees.

"Even though the legislature has started to rely on this as a reliable revenue source, we know that based on our data generally we're pay a lot more money to incarcerate people for inability to pay than what's actually owed to the courts. So we are losing money," Becker explained.

Furthermore, pointing to their inability to access full records from across North Carolina, it is calling for "statewide data collection" to gain a better understanding of how the scope of the issue.
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