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N.C. House Democrats introduce bill to reduce court fees and reform criminal debt

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The Chapel Hill Courthouse stands on 179 E. Franklin St. on April 21, 2023.

Court-imposed fees in North Carolina have increased by 400 percent over the past 20 years, according to the North Carolina Justice Center. These fees can burden those who are unable to pay the increased cost with large amounts of debt.

N.C. House Bill 636, which was introduced by N.C. House Democrats on April 17, could reduce these fees and the punishments given to those who can’t pay. The bill aims to do this by requiring courts to consider who has the ability to pay when imposing fees and decreasing the costs of individuals who don’t show up to court by half — along with other reforms.

Criminal justice debt refers to money owed to the criminal justice system due to court fees or other costs related to being incarcerated. This money is frequently used by states to pay for their courts, criminal justice systems and other unrelated government operations. 

The North Carolina Justice Center is working through its new project, the Fair Chance Criminal Justice Center, to eliminate barriers for individuals with criminal records, mostly through state policy and local advocacy.

Quisha Mallette, staff attorney with the center, said the process of paying a ticket can vary greatly for those of different income levels. For those who can afford the cost of a ticket and related fees, a trip to court can be as simple as waiting in line for a few hours, paying and moving on. But others who can’t afford these costs are fined even further for their inability to pay, and they may eventually have their driver's license suspended. 

“If we want to talk about community safety or safety on the road, then we want to make sure that our drivers are insured and make sure that folks are not getting their driver's licenses suspended for reasons that aren't related to traffic safety,” Mallette said.

H.B. 636 would remove the debt-based driver's license suspension.

Mallette said the reduction of the fee for not attending court is another important aspect of the bill since there are many reasons someone could miss a court date — including not receiving a reminder or being worried about possible additional court costs they can’t afford.

One common misconception is that criminal justice debt is a result of not taking accountability for the action that brought them to court, according to Mallette. To combat these assumptions regarding whether someone willingly chose to avoid the fees, ability-to-pay considerations are also included in the bill.

“This bill is really aimed at improving our criminal justice system to get us ever closer to what the true intention is of criminal justice, treat people fairly and without prejudice and bias,” N.C. Rep. Allen Buansi (D-Orange), a primary sponsor of the bill, said.

The lead primary sponsor, N.C. Rep. Vernetta Alston (D-Durham), said similar reforms have not been prioritized by the General Assembly this year. Unless that changes, she said it will be difficult for the bill to be passed.

“I want to hope that it's a bill that could garner bipartisan support, but I think when you're dealing with anything related to reform of the criminal justice system, unfortunately, right now, it’s an uphill battle,” she said.

Buansi said that while the bill may not gain enough attention this year, the legislators will make efforts to spread knowledge about the topic.

“We put up the bill in the hopes that we can get some traction, but if not, then we definitely want to increase awareness about this issue affecting folks caught up in the criminal justice system,” Buansi said.

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com 

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