NC leaders discuss alternatives to criminal-justice fees

The burden of criminal justice fees can be financially devastating for many individuals. From speeding tickets to court costs, those involved in the legal system often find themselves trapped in a cycle of debt.

The North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice is searching for ways to alleviate the burden and prevent further harm. The group recently held a discussion to talk about the steps being taken in North Carolina and what others are doing to find alternatives to fees and fines.

Annie Hudson-Price, senior counsel in the Office for Access to Justice for the U.S. Department of Justice, joined the conversation and highlighted the detrimental effects of an inability to pay.

“If you’re low income, it can mean choosing between paying the fines and fee or feeding your children and paying rent,” Hudson-Price pointed out. “If you fail to pay the fine or fee, the ramifications, both direct and indirect, can escalate incredibly quickly.”

She explained consequences such as losing driver’s licenses, having wages garnished, or unnecessarily being sent to jail can ultimately hinder individuals’ ability to repay their debt in the long term, posing the question, “Is this an effective method of government funding?” She noted some places such as New Orleans, New Mexico and Dane County, Wisconsin have taken steps to abolish fines and fees for juveniles.

Hudson-Price also mentioned other measures, such as income-based payment plans and rehabilitative community service. She also suggested possible actions outside of legislation.

“One of the major contributions I think that are being made is data collection and institutional transparency,” Hudson-Price explained. “It is impossible to take meaningful steps towards reducing reliance and fines and fees and addressing the harms without first understanding what is actually happening in a given jurisdiction.”

In a 2020 report, the task force also recommended the Supreme Court of North Carolina pass a General rule of Practice to require assessing a person’s ability to pay before imposing any fines and fees.

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