Citing the disproportionate effect on low-income families of court fees and other legal costs, legislators and advocates are calling for their elimination, saying they prevent people caught up in the criminal-justice system from rebuilding their lives.
Legislation being introduced by Sen. Julia Salazar and Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou would abolish mandatory minimum fines and garnishment of commissary accounts. It also would eliminate jail sentences imposed on people who failed to pay them.
Senator Salazar, who represents portions of Brooklyn, called the fees imposed by both state and local authorities insidious in that they help perpetuate a cycle of poverty and, in some cases, criminality.
“We know that automatic court fees are criminalizing poverty in our city and beyond our city,” she said during a Sept. 29 virtual press conference announcing the legislation. She called the harm to communities engendered by the legal and other costs “enormous," particularly for black and brown New Yorkers. Given they can serve as a path to recidivism, they are also ineffectual, she said.
“The cost of that is far higher than the revenue that’s generated by these fines, fees and surcharges,” the first-term Senator said. “It’s not only an inhumane policy, but it also is inefficient and it doesn't even achieve the goal that it is ostensibly supposed to achieve, and in the process it creates a perverse incentive for local governments and police departments to inappropriately enforce the law.”
Companion legislation, sponsored by Senator Luis Sepulveda and Assembly Member Carmen de la Rosa, would eliminate parole and probation fees.
A Surcharge Culture
According to a recent report by the Fines and Fees Justice Center detailing how the fees are imposed and by whom, “mandatory surcharges” are doled out for everything from parking tickets to felonies.
Legislators have increased the surcharges, which were introduced in the 1980s “with the explicit purpose of raising state revenue,” such that fees for violations increased 178 percent relative to the inflation rate, 92 percent for misdemeanors and 75 percent for felonies, according to the report.
The report's authors said the fees and surcharges amount to a regressive, “back-door” tax disproportionately imposed on low-income populations and people of color, which in effect “encourages policing-for-profit, criminalizes poverty, and endangers Black and brown lives.”
“The government should rely on neither to balance its budget. Doing so is a fiscal policy failure, undermining fairness, transparency, and accountability,” they wrote.
A 2019 report by City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office found that 45 percent of state parolees have debt when they get out of jail, much of it assumed following their convictions and even during their incarceration.
'Like Another Punishment'
According to the report by the Fines and Fees Justice Center, some inmates have up to half of their commissary funds garnished to meet their fee and surcharge obligations.
Anitria Blue, who served nearly 18 years on a manslaughter conviction before being paroled two years ago, said that court debt she had to repay while behind bars made it near-impossible for her to purchase basic necessities such as soap and deodorant from the prison commissary, which she said exacerbated “an environment that is already hostile.”
Now an organizer with Center for Community Alternatives and New Hour Women and Children, she said she found it absurd and disheartening that in addition to having to pay for her parole- supervision costs, she was also responsible for paying a fee associated with those costs.
“Trying to transition, trying to make ends meet is extremely difficult,” she said during the press conference. “It feels like another punishment.”
Cash Cow for State
The Fines and Fees Justice Center report found that New York ranks among states most reliant on the fines and fees, such that for "a dozen" localities they amount to more than 20 percent of their revenue.
According to the report, the state does not keep track “of how the government assesses, collects, and distributes revenue from individual fees,” including mandatory surcharges, despite being required to do so.
Assemblywoman Niou characterized the revenue stream as immoral, and producing a "cycle of debt" resembling a debtor’s prison.
“We know that there is a payment higher than the revenue that we raise through this,” she said. “The payment is at the cost of working people and it’s at the cost of families.”
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