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Debtor's Prison

Is Debtor’s Prison Making a Comeback?


It is unconstitutional to impose a fine as a sentence and then automatically convert it into "a jail term solely because the defendant is indigent and cannot forthwith pay the fine in full."  Tate v. Short, 401 U.S. 395 (1971).  Tate was an indigent man convicted of traffic offenses and fined $425.  Although this was an offense punishable by only fines, Texas law provided that a person who is unable to pay must be incarcerated for a sufficient amount of time to satisfy their fines at the rate of $5 per day. That meant 85 days for Tate. The Court held that it is a denial of equal protection to limit punishment to payment of a fine for those who are able to pay it but to convert the fine to imprisonment for those who are unable to pay it. The Court has repetitively held that no person can be jailed because of his inability to pay a fine or fee.

Shaming the Poor

A new law went into effect in North Carolina which prohibits judges from waiving fines and fees without providing a 15-day notice to all the state agencies who are beneficiaries of those court-imposed fines and fees, so that they can have the opportunity to object to the waiver.  There are currently 52 collectible fees, for which four (4) state agencies and 611 counties and municipalities benefit from. The new law appeared in the budget without any judiciary hearings or any amendments on the issue.  This is not necessarily out of the norm, as many laws nationwide are enacted without the usual statutory or judiciary fanfare.

North Carolina has an extensive list of court fees which generates revenue, such as, to name a few, general court fee; court facilities fee; community service fee; equipment fee; bail fee; pre-trial release fee; state criminal lab fee; local government criminal lab fee; release fee; home arrest monitoring fee; failure to appear fee; installment payment fee; community service fee; probation fee; jail fee; seat-belt violation fee; supervision fee; worthless check program fee; and….wait for it…a fee for failure to pay fee.

Most defendants are indigent, and they are unable to pay the fees and fines, which collectively can add up to more than a $1,000.  This new law "sort of ties the judges' hands," according to Cristina Becker, who fought the language on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.  Forcing people who can't afford fines to pay is "essentially trying to draw blood from a stone," she said.

Rep (D). Marcia Morey, who was a judge for 18 years, said, “Every day, people all over North Carolina face a judge for a minor offense or a traffic infraction and they are ordered to pay hundreds of dollars they simply cannot afford. Too often, non-payment isn’t willful, rather, the defendant is unemployed or disabled or suffers from addiction or mental illness. They’re held not because they are a danger to the community but because they are poor.”

North Carolina wouldn’t be the first state to jail someone for failing to pay fees or fines because they simply didn’t have the money to pay.  In 2015, Edward Brown, was a 62-year-old man living in Ferguson, MO on food stamps and $488 a month from Social Security.  His house, which he lived in for 25 years, was condemned when he couldn’t pay the city-imposed fines for not mowing his lawn.  When Brown remained in the condemned home, he was fined for trespassing.  He was also fined for not vaccinating his dog.  Brown was jailed on two separate occasions for a total of 50 days for failure to pay the fines. Justice Black wrote 75 years ago: “There can be no equal justice where the kind of trial a person gets depends on the amount of money he has.”


Texas and Arizona are two states which have reduced court-imposed fees and allowed the offenders to pay in small installments.  The reduced revenue offset the money saved in jail costs, (The Marshall Project).

Across North Carolina, 1.6 million people live in poverty; 40 out of 100 of NC’s counties has a poverty rate over 20%, and the poverty rate is still higher than it was during the recession in 2007, (  There are alternatives to shaming, demeaning, and incarcerating the poor because they cannot afford to pay the fees and/or fines.  Working off the debt or offering small installment payments is a better alternative than putting someone in jail when it will most likely cost more than the amount of money the offender owes.

If you think your constitutional rights have been violated, call us today at 704-714-1450 for a free consultation with one of our attorneys.



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