In courts across the US, poor people are regularly and systematically charged fines and fees that disrupt their lives, already complicated by poverty and dislocation. The result is the cruel and surreal criminalization of poverty. People unable to pay are punished in ways that make it even harder to escape the system.
Fees are imposed at almost every step of the way in the criminal justice system, from before trial, extending for months and years after. The costs constitute an ongoing poverty trap.
The report, Court Fines and Fees: Criminalizing Poverty in North Carolina, shows how people unable to afford the accumulating burden of court costs risk a cascade of penalties: more fees, losing driver’s licenses and jail time for many, often for initial offenses too minor for them to get locked up in the first place.
The criminal court fines and fees work to burden poor people, their families and communities. Most people who are defendants in a criminal case are poor. Nationally, 80-90% of people charged with a crime are poor enough to qualify for a public defender.
Around 20% of people in jail report having no income before getting locked up and 60% made less than $1,000 per month (in the equivalent of 2002 dollars, about $16,000 a year now).
A survey in the North Carolina Department of Corrections found that 36% of people entering prison had been homeless some time before entering prison and 7% were homeless directly before entering prison. The top reasons given for homelessness were unemployment and a previous criminal conviction.