A new report, just released by the Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law, analyzes the burden of fines and fees in North Carolina. Unpaid court debt, much of it stemming from minor traffic infractions, affects one in 12 North Carolinians – a disproportionate number of them minority residents – and we are calling on state courts and legislators to offer immediate relief during the COVID-19 public health and economic crisis.

Read more about our report in The Crime Report: “Unpaid court fees and fines affecting one in 12 North Carolina residents are adding to the burden of coping with the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report from the Center for Science and Justice at Duke University Law School.”

An op-ed by CSJ Director Brandon Garrett in NC Policy Watch explains why this is a pressing problem now.

During this emergency, North Carolina and other states have taken aggressive measures to help the unemployed, prevent utility shutoffs and late fees, and halt evictions. Far more must be done to provide people wholesale relief from court debt.

The numbers are staggering. My colleagues and I at the Center for Science and Justice at Duke have analyzed three decades of data from the Administrative Office of the Courts, and found that in over 1.72 million cases total – and 120,000 cases each year – judges have imposed costs that people cannot or do not pay.

More than 650,000 people, or one in 12 adults in North Carolina, currently have such unpaid criminal court debt, as we describe in a new report and data website. Many of these cases are years, even decades, old. Not only are most people unable to pay, but even if people save enough to pay the fines, the system is byzantine and impossible to navigate without a lawyer.