New Jersey Judicial Commission Says State's Courts Are Maximizing Revenue, Minimizing Justice
from the long-list-of-suggested-fixes-just-waiting-to-be-ignored dept
If there’s something our nation’s courts do well, it’s make life as difficult as possible for anyone caught in its gears. The premise of “innocent until proven guilty” has been made a mockery by prosecutors who stack charges until defendants give up and give in. Plea deals end more than 90% of criminal cases before they ever go to trial.
Criminal infractions subject only to tickets and fines become jailable offenses as well, once the courts are finished piling on. A $50 parking ticket can balloon into hundreds or thousands of dollars in fees and the routine issuance of bench warrants assures some who have committed moving violations spend a few hours or days in jail as part of the process.
The New Jersey Judicial Commission recognizes the problem. It’s having trouble working towards a solution, but at least it’s trying. Much like anywhere else in the country, depriving drivers of their licenses in lieu of collected fees doesn’t do anything to help the state collect fines. People with suspended licenses either can’t get to work or take a calculated risk to ensure their income flow doesn’t come to a halt. With automatic license plate readers flagging drivers with suspended licenses, cops are finding it easier to turn small driving infractions into life-crippling situations.
In a survey conducted of individuals that had at that time or previously had their license suspended, 42% lost their jobs as a result of the suspension; 45% who lost their job as a result of the suspension could not find another job; and 88% of those that were unable to find another job reported a decrease in income.
Some of this devastation is the fault of the courts, which have not been fully assessing citizens’ ability to pay fines in a timely manner. But some of this lands on prosecutors, who punitively ratchet up charges for no discernible reason, as in this example provided by the Commission.
Julie received a speeding ticket for traveling 65 in a 55 mph zone. The ticket was payable, and could be paid online on NJMCdirect.com for a penalty of $95.00. That amount included the fine, court costs, and surcharges. Because a guilty finding results in 2 motor vehicle points being assessed by MVC, Julie appeared for her court date to seek a different result. After discussion with the prosecutor, the charge was amended to unsafe driving, N.J.S.A. 39:4-97.2, a violation that carries no motor vehicle points but a $250 surcharge. Julie’s total penalties went from $95 to $389.
If these fees aren’t collected quickly enough, courts often end up yanking people’s driving privileges. This swiftly escalates normal tickets into unpayable territory, especially once everything leeching off the court system asks for its cut of the take. This is a “small sample” of fees that may be tacked onto normal misdemeanor citations at the judge’s discretion.
$100 assessed on domestic violence offenders to fund grants for domestic violence prevention, training, and assessment, as created by N.J.S.A. 2C:25-29.4;
$250 for the Computer Crime Prevention Fund for disorderly persons/petty disorderly persons violations under Title 2C, Chapter 20, as created by N.J.S.A. 2C:43-3.8; $500 for the Drug Enforcement and Demand Reduction Fund for disorderly persons/petty disorderly persons violations under Title 2C Chapter 35, controlled dangerous substances, or Chapter 36, drug paraphernalia, as created by N.J.S.A. 2C:35- 15;
$50 criminal laboratory fee for each conviction under Title 2C, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:35-20a;
$50 for the Victims of Crime Compensation Office for disorderly persons/petty disorderly persons violations under Title 2C, and certain Title 39 violations, as created by N.J.S.A. 2C:43- 3.1a(2)(a), (c); and
$75 for the Safe Neighborhoods Services Fund for disorderly persons/petty disorderly persons violations under Title 2C, and N.J.S.A. 39:4-50, driving under the influence, as created by N.J.S.A. 2C:43-3.2.
The outcome for the courts and prosecutors is clear: there’s money to be made destroying lives. The New Jersey court system made $400 million in profit in 2017 alone. The excess revenue was split between the courts and local governments.
Few within the system want to see this steady flow of excess income interrupted. Some positive changes have been made in some New Jersey courts, providing those with an inability to pay fines with greater leniency and other restitution options. But other courts have seen the process of administering justice devolve into pure graft.
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner issued an April 17, 2018 memorandum to all judges of the Municipal and Superior Courts regarding fines and penalties in Municipal Court. In that memo, Chief Justice Rabner highlighted two recent events that demonstrate the precise conduct this Committee was convened to address. The first was a Municipal Court judge who “diverted fines against defendants in a way that generated more revenue for municipalities and less for the county.” That Municipal Court judge pled guilty to a fourth-degree crime of falsifying records, and is barred from ever holding public office. The second relates to a Municipal Court judge who opened a 2014 court session “by announcing that any fines imposed were due that day, and that any defendants who refused to pay would be sentenced to county jail.” The judge later fined a defendant $239, including court costs, and when that defendant was unable to make a payment, the judge sentenced him to five days in jail and had him arrested.
The Committee has handed down a long list of recommendations to change New Jersey’s court system for the better. It includes reminding them that the US Supreme Court has ruled it’s unconstitutional to jail people for their inability to pay fines — something that seems to be ignored with alarming regularity. It recommends doing away with standardized fine collection and provide judges with more leeway to reduce fines and fees as needed when indigent citizens are affected.
It also suggests there be more direct monitoring of other tactics — like contempt charges and bench warrants — that seek to impose higher fees on defendants if not depriving them of their freedom on top of their income. Failure to curb these two tactics just sends those already in financial distress into holes they may never be able to escape. At this point, the New Jersey court system has 2.5 million outstanding bench warrants related to traffic tickets and misdemeanors. Continuing to add to this total serves no purpose and shows the system is doing a ridiculously poor job collecting outstanding fees and/or deterring future violations.
Perhaps the best suggestions are the simplest: hit drivers with restricted licenses rather than suspensions and write off old fees/fines where the offense was minor, like parking tickets. This should clear several thousand bench warrants immediately and provide indigent drivers with the ability to continue making a living while paying back court fees and fines.
The government isn’t supposed to be a profit-driven entity. But the way most court systems are set up, this becomes almost inevitable. Tech advances like plate readers and traffic cams have greatly increased court systems’ cash flow by automating the process of ticketing and locating drivers. The problem is these governments now feel this revenue stream should continue unchecked and uninterrupted, with annual increases generally expected by all who benefit from it. This perverts incentives and turns the justice system into a revenue generator that grinds up and spits out those unlucky enough to find themselves tangled up in it.