Opinion writer

This story from the Marshall Project is just infuriating. North Carolina, like many states, has added layers of fees and fines for roadway infractions — and then for not being able to pay those fees and fines — that for low-income people can make even something as banal as a seat-belt violation grow into a crushing debt.

As post-Ferguson reports have drawn national attention to the debilitating nature of these fines and fees, some North Carolina judges have begun waiving them for people who can demonstrate that they’re too poor to pay them. Enter the state legislature, which Republicans control with a veto-proof majority.

A new North Carolina law takes effect Friday that is designed to hamstring the ability of judges to waive fines and fees for poor people.

Critics say the law will mean jail time for more poor people who can’t pay court costs that start at $179 for a seat belt violation and can easily surpass $1,000.

The law is believed to be the first of its kind in the country. It runs counter to reform efforts in other states that are attempting to reduce the number of people jailed because they are unable to pay fines or fees or make bail.

The measure seems crafted by the Republican-controlled General Assembly to maneuver around a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Bearden v. Georgia, in which the court held that people cannot be jailed simply because they are too poor to pay fines and fees. Judges can waive costs if the failure to pay is not willful.

North Carolina’s new law would not explicitly prohibit waivers for the poor, but would throw up a serious impediment, requiring judges to give 15 days notice to all affected agencies before issuing a waiver.

In North Carolina, that would be a lot of notices. An offender in the state is subject to a vast array of fees, from $5 for being arrested to $200 for failing to appear. The state charges a fee of $7.50 to underwrite the police and sheriff retirement funds and a fee of up to $40 a day for taking up space in jail. Perhaps inevitably, there is a $50 fee for failing to pay a fee.

In all, 52 fees are routed to four state agencies and 611 counties and municipalities.

The law would saddle counties across the state with thousands of dollars in administrative and postage fees to process and mail the notices.

The argument in favor of the law, as near as I can tell, is that many public services in the state (including the courts) rely on these fines and fees for significant portions of their operational budgets. But the problem there is not that waiving these fees will starve the courts and some of these agencies of revenue; it’s that the state has a system in which so many basic government functions are reliant on fines and fees extracted from people accused of breaking the law. It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the impartiality of the state’s municipal courts when their operating budgets grow fatter with every conviction and thinner with every acquittal.

The other problem with the argument that frequent waivers will starve operating budgets is that these waivers are being granted to people who can’t afford the fines and fees. That’s the whole point. Perhaps some judges are more generous with the waivers than others. And perhaps this law will persuade a few of them to grant fewer waivers. Even so, this is a pool of people who at least facially made the case that they couldn’t afford the fines they had been assessed. Making it more difficult to grant them waivers might, at best, result in a select few paying fines who otherwise wouldn’t — the few who managed to convince a judge that they were too poor when, in reality, they had enough money to pay the fine. It seems rather doubtful that this will bring in significantly more revenue.

Here’s what likely will happen: Under the new law, judges who frequently grant waivers are now looking at thousands of dollars in additional costs. If they stop granting waivers, those costs go away. The people who were too poor to pay before are probably still too poor to pay. It’s just that now their debts will continue to mount, they’ll eventually face the loss of their driver’s license and perhaps eventually wind up in jail. (Also, please spare me the line about “if you’re too poor to pay the fine, just follow the law.” As I’ve explained here before, our roads and traffic laws are designed to encourage law-breaking and to generate revenue.)

But all of that isn’t even the worst of it. The worst of it is that the politicians who crafted this cruel legislation undoubtedly knew it was cruel, because they were too cowardly to put their names on it. Again from the Marshall Project:

No lawmaker has claimed authorship. No one introduced it as a bill or filed it as an amendment. Tracing sponsorship even stumped the librarians at the North Carolina Legislative Library.

It first appeared in the 362-page budget passed by the state Senate. John and other legislators said the primary mover and shaker was Sen. Shirley Randleman, a retired clerk of court who runs the Senate’s budget subcommittee for criminal justice.

Randleman declined to take ownership, saying the provision was a group effort by senior budget writers in both chambers.

The new law is all about revenue, she said. Courts rely on fees for 50 percent of their budget. Jails, law enforcement, counties and school systems lose money from waivers: “We should give them an opportunity to be heard.” …

Randleman declined to discuss the unfunded postage and processing costs the law imposes on the courts, or the logistics of giving legal notice to hundreds of agencies. She also declined to address concerns that people would lose driver’s licenses or jobs simply because they are poor.

“I can’t comment on what everybody else in the universe says about this, that or the other,” she said.

This legislation is abominable. In most jurisdictions where we see this odious system of fines, fees and predatory municipal courts, the system itself was the product of public officials who probably weren’t considering all of the ramifications and possible unintended consequences of the laws they were passing. That is, they’re guilty of careless and sloppy policymaking, but probably not of intentionally targeting the poor.

This North Carolina law is more sinister. These politicians are putting a boot to the necks of the state’s poor. And the fact that they’ve refused to put their names on the law is the big tell. They know exactly what they’re doing.