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The Effect of Increased Court Costs

The New York Times has an interesting and reveal story about probation costs and how mounting costs can trap people in a cycle of court costs, probation, and eventually incarceration.

The story focuses on Alabama. Some, though certainly not all, of the issues can apply in North Carolina criminal courts.

“With so many towns economically strapped, there is growing pressure on the courts to bring in money rather than mete out justice,” said Lisa W. Borden, a partner in Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, a large law firm in Birmingham, Ala., who has spent a great deal of time on the issue. “The companies they hire are aggressive. Those arrested are not told about the right to counsel or asked whether they are indigent or offered an alternative to fines and jail. There are real constitutional issues at stake.”

North Carolina’s court costs have risen dramatically in recent years. A typically Level 5 Raleigh DWI case that a few years ago might be about $300 in fees, now averages between $600 and $700 in costs, not taking into account costs associated with the Limited Driving Privilege or civil revocation fee.

Court costs for DMV-related cases are currently $190 for District Court. Court costs for non-DMV-related cases are $180. Just a few years ago, court costs were around $100. At the same time, the state has frozen pay for most state employees, including Assistant District Attorneys and Public Defenders, and has cut the court-appointment fees paid to private Raleigh criminal lawyers who take court appointed cases as part of their practice.

As the New York Times reports, increases in court costs adversely affect the poor for two reasons. First, the poor are obviously less able to pay, which can result in “Failure to Pay” or “Failure to Comply” orders from the court that ultimately will mean an automatic suspension of a driver’s license if the original matter was a traffic matter. In cases where the matter is a criminal and not traffic-related, failure to pay and failure to comply can result in a show cause hearing where contempt charges may result in further fines, costs, or potential probation or incarceration.

While it’s understandable that the court system is seen as a way to increase revenue from criminal defendants who are already seen to be less-than-deserving, the danger is that such costs create an unending cycle of criminal processes that further impoverish certain communities.



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