Court Costs and the Criminalization of Poverty

I just got a reminder that NC court costs have gone up…again. You probably know that when someone is convicted of a traffic or criminal offense, there is often a monetary fine imposed by the judge. But usually a majority of what you actually pay is a fixed court cost, the proceeds of which are parceled out to everything from facilities to telecommunications.

When I started working in the criminal courts in 2005, the total court cost was $100 per case. Since then, that’s gone up to $190, more than double the inflation rate. That’s what everyone pays, even for a minor traffic offense, in addition to any fine set by the judge. But there’s more. If you miss court on a traffic ticket, there’s a Failure to Appear fee, which used to be $50, and now it’s $200. As a result of rising fees, some judges started waiving court costs for certain defendants they deemed unable to pay. So the NC legislature responded by requiring judges to give notice to every government agency that receives a portion of court costs (about 15) and setting up other systems to discourage judges from making waivers. None of these responses from the legislature are helpful to our court system.

Don’t get me wrong, people who violate the law should be held accountable and court fines/fees are one way to do it, but these costs are excessive and disproportionately affect the poor and people of color. As District Attorney, I can’t change the dollar amount of court costs set for the state, but what I can do is take into account a defendant’s ability to pay when deciding what types and numbers of charges to press in court. Our office can also take a thoughtful and reasonable stance when waivers are sought.

Exploding court costs are just one facet of the criminalization of poverty, an issue I’ve made a top priority of my campaign, have fought against throughout my career, and will continue to address.  If you have any thoughts on this or any other issue, shoot me an email at

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