Charlotte Judges Plan Reforms to End ‘Spiral of Incarceration’

The 21 District Court judges in Mecklenburg County, N.C., say they are determined to stop locking up criminal defendants solely because they can’t afford to pay fines.

A group of judges in Mecklenburg County, N.C., has launched an effort to end the “spiral of incarceration” that grips poor people who are unable to pay fines, reports the Charlotte Observer. Working with Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Debt Initiative, the county’s 21 District Court judges will soon begin holding formal hearings to determine a defendant’s economic status before levying penalties. The new process could begin as early as this week. On any given day at the Mecklenburg County Jail, more than 300 people – 18 percent of the average daily inmate population – are locked up solely because they failed or can’t afford to pay fines or other monetary penalties attached to their criminal cases. Many are jailed repeatedly at taxpayer expense for outstanding court debts on minor offenses.

“What we see far too often is a defendant who has been arrested for not paying court costs,” said District Court Judge Becky Tin. “And you’re sitting on the bench, and you see them after they’ve been in jail for seven days because they do not have the money. This should never happen. It is our intent in Mecklenburg County that this will no longer happen.” State law gives judges wide leeway in matching court penalties with a defendant’s ability to pay. But state lawmakers have made it more difficult to waive or reduce penalties for indigent defendants–a legislative attempt to protect the $700 million that court fines and costs add to the state’s general fund each year. The judges say they are ready to do battle over the issue.