Every year in North Carolina, citizens convicted of a crime are not just subjected to punishments like imprisonment and parole, they are also forced to pay millions of dollars in court fees, fines, and penalties. Although these Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs) are intended to be an alternative to imprisonment and help recoup to the state the significant costs of crime, the reality is that the nature of LFOs leads to a variety of unintended negative consequences that fall disproportionately upon the most vulnerable North Carolina residents.

Over the past three years, the North Carolina Advisory Committee of the US Commission on Civil Rights has explored the impact of LFOs in our state. Our committee is charged with fact-finding on civil rights issues in North Carolina with an eye towards uncovering civil rights issues that are in need of reform or political action. Importantly, our committee of civic leaders, academics, attorneys, and activists is comprised of individuals who genuinely represent the broad spectrum of conservative to liberal thought in North Carolina.

To learn more about this problem, we interviewed judges, attorneys, political leaders, academic experts, as well as ordinary citizens who have faced LFO’s. Based on this testimony, we produced a report that highlights a number of important findings.

· Court fees have increased 400% in the past 20 years.

· Courts can issue warrants for arrest for failure to pay LFOs, resulting in imprisonment not for the original offense, but rather for lacking sufficient resources to pay the additional fees and penalties.

· The addition of interest and collection fees means that many people are locked into an inescapable cycle of debt.

· People with LFOs report forgoing food, rent, medical care, and child expenses to cover their LFOs.

· Perhaps the most perverse outcome is the suspension of a driver’s license for failure to pay fees, making it almost impossible to earn a good income, thereby making their debt situation even worse.

· The impact of this system is most harshly felt by North Carolina’s minority citizens. 82% of those charged with failure to comply or failure to pay were people of color, and 54% of the North Carolina prison population incarcerated because of inability to pay were people of color.

· Although most judges strive to impose LFO’s in a fair manner, we found evidence that the current system creates burdens that work against fair and consistent outcomes. Judges need additional training in assessing inability to pay, defendants need better information about raising inability to pay in court proceedings, and alternate payment programs need to be implemented.

Our committee also makes recommendations that can hopefully lead to meaningful policy change to improve the civil rights and lives of North Carolina residents. We think there is real potential to do that here. Among our key recommendations:

The leaders of the NC General Assembly and NC Gov. Roy Cooper should:

· appoint a bipartisan legislative committee to study and make recommendations regarding the impact of legal fees, fines, and costs imposed on NC residents;

· fund training for judges and court personnel that will ensure enforcement of state statutes and procedures that require the courts to consider a defendant’s ability to pay before imposing obligations;

· create incentives for jurisdictions to eliminate longstanding LFO debt and its collateral consequences such as the indefinite suspension of drivers’ licenses.

Courts throughout North Carolina should:

· require judges to conduct meaningful, rigorous ability to pay hearings that include a mandatory inquiry into defendants’ ability to pay before assessing costs;

· prohibit the issuance of arrest warrants solely for failure to pay criminal court fines, fees, and penalties;

· place greater consideration on alternatives to fines and fees such as community service, alternative community support programs, and creative restitution options.

Our committee of civic-minded people of good faith from across the political spectrum came together to create this report, which was approved unanimously, and propose a series of improvements. In the same way, NC political leaders can work together to bridge partisan gaps on this important issue and introduce meaningful reforms to create a more just, effective, and equitable criminal justice system in NC.