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Poverty makes life harder for those accused of crimes

"Criminalizing the poor" is a problem that a lot of states are facing.

Essentially, poor defendants who don't have enough resources to pay the fines, court costs and administrative fees that are leveled against them for minor offenses -- like a traffic ticket or a minor drug possession charge -- can request a waiver. Constitutionally, the waivers are generally mandated.

Unless you happen to live in North Carolina.

If you do, you face tremendous legislative and financial obstacles to obtain your freedom if you're convicted of a crime and you can't pay the fees associated with everything from your stay in the holding cell to your transportation to and from the courthouse.

While judges once had the power to waive the fees, the state's legislature recently added a rule that now requires the court to give various state agencies a 15-day notice so that they can object if they choose.

Judges say the rule is purposefully designed to be as difficult as possible so that no waivers will be issued. That means that -- able or not -- payment is expected. If payment isn't received, new penalties are assessed, including jail.

It's a modern-day debtor's prison that can trap somebody in jail over a simple traffic violation. The traffic violation might be $100, but the other fees can quickly add up. There's a court fee, a facilities fee, lab testing fees, equipment fees, bail fees, probation fees and -- almost insultingly -- a fee for the nonpayment of fees. A defendant in North Carolina who gets a suspended sentence can easily end up back in jail because he or she owes more than $1,000 in fees.

Attorneys and judges alike are united against the legislation but are essentially unable to do anything about it. The best that they can hope for is that the public will realize what is happening and pressure the legislature for changes.

The current system creates two judicial systems -- one for those who can pay for a criminal defense and pay for fines if needed and another that punishes the poor simply for being poor.

Source: www.newsobserver.com, "Criminalizing poverty in North Carolina," Gene Nichol, Nov. 15, 2017

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