Many people involved in the criminal legal system live on the economic margins. Most defendants are unable to hire their own lawyer due to indigency. In North Carolina, the average person in prison doesn’t have a high school diploma. The cost of involvement in the criminal legal system can quickly add up to thousands of dollars, but the people expected to pay these costs often don’t have the financial resources to do so. Debt that results from this involvement can be difficult or impossible for them to pay off. North Carolina law provides a number of ways for court officials to attempt to collect criminal financial obligations. One option allows judges to order some of these financial obligations converted to a civil judgment.
When a judge orders criminal financial obligations converted to a civil judgment, justice-involved people face seizure of their state tax refunds, loss of real estate or their equity in it, barriers to expunging their criminal record, and difficulty finding housing and employment. Saddling people with a civil judgment in addition to a criminal record, time in jail or prison, or other consequences of involvement with the criminal legal system can have harmful, and sometimes unanticipated, consequences.
Analyzing data from North Carolina’s Civil Case Processing System, commonly known as VCAP, this paper reveals the extent to which courts are converting criminal financial obligations to civil judgments, the impact on justice-involved people’s financial wellbeing, and how ineffective this practice is in promoting debt collection in North Carolina. The U.S. Constitution requires that courts waive criminal financial obligations when people cannot afford to pay them. Ultimately, we find that North Carolina’s law allowing courts to waive criminal financial obligations is not used as it should be, given the high percentage of indigent justice-involved individuals.
Advocates may convert criminal financial obligations to civil judgments to prevent the harsh consequences of unpaid criminal debt. However, the consequences of non-payment of civil judgments can also be harsh, lasting until the amount, including interest in many instances, is paid in full. Rather than converting criminal financial obligations to civil judgments, court officials should waive or reduce criminal financial obligations when allowed by law.