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Study: Petty Court Fines and Fees Creates ‘Vicious Cycle’ of Debt for Years

by Dale Chappell

A study by the Duke University Law School found, unsurprisingly, that court fines and fees for such petty offenses as parking tickets creates a “vicious cycle of court debt” that lasts for years, hindering most U.S. residents who are struggling to get by. The solution, researchers say, is to simply stop imposing fines and fees on people without considering their ability to pay.

While the study focused on only North Carolina, it showed that 1.2 million of the state’s residents had their licenses suspended dating back to the 1980s for either failing to pay a fine or appear in court for petty offenses. It further found that 28% of those whose driver’s licenses were suspended due to an unpaid fine were evicted from their homes, forcing them to go ahead and drive anyway—racking up more fines and fees plus criminal charges for driving without a license.

In fact, one in 12 people in North Carolina had some unpaid court debt, which builds upon itself: another $50 is added to the debt if it’s more than 40 days late. However, people making over $50,000 a year were 46% less likely to have their license suspended due to unpaid court debt. This, the researchers said, unfairly impacts disadvantaged people, especially the poor.

“These policies offer little to no public benefit—and in fact, are counterproductive,” the study concluded. “They create barriers to working and contributing to the economy, punish the poor, and disproportionately cause serious harms to families and communities of color.” But since so many local governments rely on petty court fines to stay afloat, change is difficult, they acknowledge. 



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