KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
There has been a big effort across the country to reduce the number of people who go to jail because they can't afford to pay court fees or make bail. But a new law in North Carolina is doing the opposite. It took effect on Friday, and it is meant to make it harder for judges to waive court fines and fees.
Joe Neff of The Marshall Project writes it's thought to be the first law of its kind in the U.S. And the weird thing is there's no sponsor for this law. There's no name attached to it. Joe Neff joins us from member station WUNC in Durham. Hi there.
JOSEPH NEFF: Hello.
MCEVERS: Before we get into the specifics of this law, what do we know about where it came from? And how is it that there's no lawmaker attached to it?
NEFF: Well, it appeared in the budget, which is a way that laws in North Carolina and many other states just show up - in the budget. There was no bills filed. There is no amendment filed. There are no hearings in the judiciary committee, for example. It appeared in the budget.
MCEVERS: So as I said, this law makes it harder for judges to waive court fees and fines - how?
NEFF: Well, the Supreme Court has said you cannot send someone to jail just because they can't afford to pay. And so this law puts up an obstacle like a bureaucratic logjam. Before waiving a fine or a fee, a judge has to notify any public agency that might get a piece of it.
MCEVERS: Could you just give an example of how the fees work?
NEFF: OK. The lowest fee is a seatbelt violation. You go into court. You have to pay $154 general court fee and 25 bucks for not wearing your seatbelt. That $154 is split up anywhere from $2.50 to the law enforcement retirement fund, money to the local police officer for making arrest, money to the treasury to run the courthouse.
MCEVERS: So I guess I can imagine these agencies saying, hey, we want our money. I mean, is that the argument for this law?
NEFF: The state senator who talked to me about this law says, yes, these state agencies - the State Bureau of Investigation or the local jail or the school board - they deserve this money. So this is a revenue source for government.
MCEVERS: But if we're talking about people who can't afford to pay the fines in the first place, they're not going to get the revenue. I mean, how is this going to affect people who will be getting these fines?
NEFF: Poor people often have to make choices. Are they going to pay a $250 fine or pay part of it, or are they going to keep the lights on and keep rent paid? And if you don't pay a fine in North Carolina in 40 days you're reported to the motor vehicles, and then you can lose your license. And then you can lose your job or - so it just puts people in a real financial crunch.
MCEVERS: What are judges saying about the law?
NEFF: I haven't talked to any judges who like it, and I've talked to a number of them for this story. Judges don't like being told what to do by nature. But also, they're there watching a parade of people come into the courtroom every day in traffic court or misdemeanor court, and they get a sense that some of these people just can't pay. And a number of judges have told me that it's just wrong to fund the justice system on the backs of the poor since the poor are overrepresented in the justice system to begin with.
MCEVERS: As I said in the introduction, I mean, there's this, you know, broader reform of court systems so poor people aren't, you know, jailed because they can't afford fines. What's been the response to the North Carolina law nationally?
NEFF: Well, the National Center for State Courts flat-out said, you know, North Carolina is going in the wrong direction.
MCEVERS: Do you think - is there any sort of movement in North Carolina to see this law overturned?
NEFF: It's going to be hard to overturn it in the current legislature in North Carolina. The - both houses are run by Republicans. They have a veto-proof majority. And it's clear that they want this law in place.
MCEVERS: Joseph Neff is a staff writer for The Marshall Project. Thank you so much.
NEFF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.