According to experts, an estimated 170,000 North Carolinians owe outstanding debt to the legal system, to the tune of an average $2,400. The debt takes many forms – the court and prison systems are expensive. Being charged at all means a $173 bill. Background checks cost, and so do public defenders. Having evidence of your own alleged crime analyzed in a lab is at least $600. Community service costs $250 and those under house arrest have to pay rent on that anklet. In jail and can’t afford bail? It’s a $50 per night hotel with bars. Probation costs $40 per month to offset the administrative costs. Judges are allowed to waive all of this sort of debt, but in 2015, any such waiver became public information, published as an expense to tax-payers.
In North Carolina, as in many states, felons currently serving their sentence aren’t allowed to vote. But the statutes there have extended that disenfranchisement to include felons who have not paid off all of their conviction-related debt.
In 2019, voting rights advocates brought a lawsuit to strip out this disenfranchisement, on the basis that it went against the voters protections baked into the North Carolina Constitution. On Friday, September 4, a three-judge panel in the state Superior Court agreed in a 2-1 split that the statute was unconstitutional.
Justices Lisa Bell and Keith Gregory ruled that the statute was discriminatory in its inception, intended to strip the poor of voting rights. Their decision has, in a stroke, restored the voting rights of as many as 100,000 North Carolinians who will now be able to vote in the 2020 Presidential Election, as is their right.
Republican lawmakers, who have viciously attacked this lawsuit as seeking to make North Carolina a lawless territory governed by criminals, have not yet said if they plan to appeal the decision, but they have nothing to gain by doing so. The NC Supreme Court, almost entirely liberal appointees, is more likely to abolish felon disenfranchisement altogether than to restore the debt statute.