A new law in North Carolina, believed to be the first of its kind nationwide, took effect on Friday, Dec. 1, curbing the state’s judges’ ability to waive fees and fines for poor people.
The General Assembly, controlled by a Republican majority, passed the law to circumvent a U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1983 according to which judges are allowed to waive costs for the poor and cannot jail individuals for the sole reason they are too poor to be able to afford fines and fees.
The law goes against a general nationwide tendency for reform that looks to alleviate the burden on poor people, enabling them to pay in small installments and enabling judges to reduce or waive fees altogether.
According to the new law, judges are allowed to waive fees and fines but are required to give a 15 days’ notice to all affected agencies before the waiver. This requirement can prove a considerable obstacle, as the state imposes 52 different fees for a vast array of infractions including a $50 fee for failing to pay a fee. Court costs in the state can easily surpass $1,000. These fees are routed to four different state agencies and 611 counties and municipalities, making the notice requirement a potentially expensive exercise that can cost the state’s counties thousands of dollars in extra postage every week and further burden their often-understaffed offices.
Some Democrat state representatives are making an effort to mitigate the new law’s impact by alerting all agencies to it and to their open option to send counsel to any court session and be heard on any fee waiver. Nevertheless, as courts rely on fees for half of their budget, the new law is in the interest of those who hold budget considerations above other concerns.