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.

The Judicial Commission's report [PDF] makes it clear how devastating this can be for drivers unable to pay steadily-increasing fees. (h/t The Newspaper)

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.


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Sep 2018 @ 4:01pm

    Short Summary of the Study

    "legalized armed robbery"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 20 Sep 2018 @ 4:12pm

    The government isn't supposed to be a profit-driven entity.

    Someone should have told that to Donald Trump. (Not like he would have listened or cared, but still.)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 20 Sep 2018 @ 4:28pm

      Re:

      Recitals of actual instances giving rise to this comment are appropriate.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Gary (profile), 20 Sep 2018 @ 8:59pm

        Re: Re: Trump

        Recitals of actual instances giving rise to this comment are appropriate.

        "I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will have Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words." "[Overseas] we build a school, we build a road, they blow up the school, we build another school, we build another road, they blow them up, we build again. In the meantime we can't get a fucking school in Brooklyn." "I will be phenomenal to the women. I mean, I want to help women." "Grab them by the pussy." "It's like in golf... A lot of people - I don't want this to sound trivial - but a lot of people are switching to these really long putters, very unattractive... it's weird. You see these great players with these really long putters, because they can't sink three-footers anymore. And, I hate it. I am a traditionalist. I have so many fabulous friends who happen to be gay, but I am a traditionalist." "It's really cold outside, they are calling it a major freeze, weeks ahead of normal. Man, we could use a big fat dose of global warming!" "Our country is in serious trouble. We don't have victories any more. We used to have victories but [now] we don't have them. When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let's say, China, in a trade deal? They kill us. I beat China all the time. All the time." "They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people." "The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive." "I look very much forward to showing my financials, because they are huge." "The concept of shaking hands is absolutely terrible, and statistically I've been proven right." "As a kid, I was making a building with blocks in our playroom. I didn't have enough. So I asked my younger brother Robert if I could borrow some of his. He said, 'Okay, but you have to give them back when you're done.' I used all of my blocks, then all of his blocks, and when I was done I had a great building, which I then glued together. Robert never did get those blocks back."

        Feel free to find more stupid things he's said to demonstrate his lack of comprehension, fiscal responsibility and morally reprehensible behavior...

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 21 Sep 2018 @ 4:07am

          Re: Re: Re: Trump

          How ridiculous, and frankly, childish. Do try to stay on point, ok?

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 21 Sep 2018 @ 7:11am

          Re: Re: Re: Trump

          Oh, he understood China has rigged the system (for example foreign companies must form a joint-venture with Chinese company to operate in China - this means IP transfer on unprecedented scale). So - in this case, the diagnosis is fine. The cure, however, is not.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 21 Sep 2018 @ 7:33am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Trump

            "for example foreign companies must form a joint-venture with Chinese company to operate in China "

            Yeah - no one anywhere else does this as it is not a standard practice. Likewise, China has the nerve to charge tariffs on goods from America! Can you believe that?

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 21 Sep 2018 @ 6:42am

        Re: Re:

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 20 Sep 2018 @ 7:21pm

    tickets as a weapon..

    The WHOLE idea that a Fine will make people do better, is such a stupid idea.
    Taking a License/car away from a poor person, means they will Not be able to work most times.
    Spending a day, going to court can Loose Most people a job.
    You cant get what you want from the poor, PUT them in jail...isnt a good thing either.
    You end up with a family out there that cant make it iwth out the money..

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Sep 2018 @ 7:02am

      Re: tickets as a weapon..

      Sounds like "American dream" to me. And apparently to most US people, since everyone seems to accept it as obvious.

      Why would I ever think US to be a "land of opportunity" - I really have no idea.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 21 Sep 2018 @ 7:34am

        Re: Re: tickets as a weapon..

        "land of opportunity"

        Another lie.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 21 Sep 2018 @ 12:07pm

          Let America Be America Again by Langston Hughes

          Let America be America again.
          Let it be the dream it used to be.
          Let it be the pioneer on the plain
          Seeking a home where he himself is free.

          (America never was America to me.)

          Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
          Let it be that great strong land of love
          Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
          That any man be crushed by one above.

          (It never was America to me.)

          O, let my land be a land where Liberty
          Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
          But opportunity is real, and life is free,
          Equality is in the air we breathe.

          (There’s never been equality for me,
          Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

          Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
          And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

          I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
          I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
          I am the red man driven from the land,
          I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
          And finding only the same old stupid plan
          Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

          I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
          Tangled in that ancient endless chain
          Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
          Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
          Of work the men! Of take the pay!
          Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

          I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
          I am the worker sold to the machine.
          I am the Negro, servant to you all.
          I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
          Hungry yet today despite the dream.
          Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
          I am the man who never got ahead,
          The poorest worker bartered through the years.

          Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
          In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
          Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
          That even yet its mighty daring sings
          In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
          That’s made America the land it has become.
          O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
          In search of what I meant to be my home—
          For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
          And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
          And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
          To build a “homeland of the free.”

          The free?

          Who said the free? Not me?
          Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
          The millions shot down when we strike?
          The millions who have nothing for our pay?
          For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
          And all the songs we’ve sung
          And all the hopes we’ve held
          And all the flags we’ve hung,
          The millions who have nothing for our pay—
          Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

          O, let America be America again—
          The land that never has been yet—
          And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
          The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
          Who made America,
          Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
          Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
          Must bring back our mighty dream again.

          Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
          The steel of freedom does not stain.
          From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
          We must take back our land again,
          America!

          O, yes,
          I say it plain,
          America never was America to me,
          And yet I swear this oath—
          America will be!

          Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
          The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
          We, the people, must redeem
          The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
          The mountains and the endless plain—
          All, all the stretch of these great green states—
          And make America again!

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    bobwyzguy (profile), 21 Sep 2018 @ 4:04am

    Not Just New Jersey

    This kind of stuff happens in the People's Republic of Minnesota too. I successfully beat a ticket for "Failure to observe signage" due to poor placement of said signs and ended up paying more to "win" than I would have to just pay the fine, but I needed to keep it off my driving record. The little city I live in made a small fortune in the DUI entrapment business by staking out wedding receptions at the local American Legion and basically having everyone blow a breath test before they got to go home. Not to mention the volume of speeding tickets that the Police Chief was bragging about in a council meeting once. This goes on everywhere.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Vidiot (profile), 21 Sep 2018 @ 4:51am

    Poor prosecutorial decisions are hugely at fault. And it's helpful to differentiate the actual municipal court prosecutors involved here from the ennobled characters portrayed in TV crime dramas.

    In my experience in NJ municipal courts, the recent law school grad, unable to secure a slot in a regional powerhouse law firm, returns to her or his hometown and hangs out a shingle... wills, divorces and personal injury. Then, mostly because they're young and don't know any better, they get themselves appointed as a municipal assistant prosecutor. What follows is intoxicating: irrespective of their mediocre class rank or inexperience, ticketed motorists must bow low or curtsy before them, and beg for a reduction in the charges (and increase in fines). The municipal prosecutor, in that instant, is the most important person in the room; before court begins, a line is formed so that, one by one, each miscreant may appear before them and grovel. Local bigwigs, crabby neighbors, a teacher they always hated... heady stuff! And clearly, failure to kiss the ring could quickly escalate charges, especially for less savvy supplicants, or those who display a bit of 'tude. Bingo - no license, no ability to pay.

    This is no doubt compounded by the state's governmental structure -- few services are provided by regional governments, like counties or extended townships; a NJ County Sheriff enforces evictions and patrols county buildings, nothing more. New Jersey's 18th-19th century topology means hundreds and hundreds of small town Emperor-Prosecutors never develop enough professionalism to look at big-picture issues in small-time enforcement.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Shufflepants, 21 Sep 2018 @ 7:33am

    Whenever I hear those statistics about how many court cases end in plea bargains, it makes me wonder if it's possible or what could be accomplished if we could get a movement to get a significant number of people who are charged with crimes to demand their right to a trial by jury.

    If plea deals make up 90% of cases, what if we could get that number down to 80% or 70%? The courts are already bogged down as is. If double or tripled the number of people actually going to trial, it would cause chaos, no?

    Or I wonder if with a proper lawyer, some one offered a plea bargain could get that in writing, then decide to go to trial and enter the plea bargain as evidence of what kind of charges they should really be facing even though they decided to go to trial. Surely, there's a case to be made that the plea bargain system is a violation of due process since it punishes people for exercising their constitutionally protected right to trial by jury.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Sep 2018 @ 7:41am

      Re:

      One would have to start by funding the public defender office.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 21 Sep 2018 @ 10:38am

        Re: Re:

        For which part, the protest of getting people to demand a trial, or the part where you try to get a court to rule that the plea bargain system is a violation of due process?

        The point of getting people to demand a trial is to force states to allocate more resources to public defenders and get them to consider decriminalizing marijuana and other drugs.

        For the second thing, you don't need to increase public defender spending, you need a good pro bono lawyer to take up one or more of those cases where the defendant is poor and is offered a plea bargain if they agree to plead guilty in exchange for being charged with fewer things and a shorter sentence.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Tin-Foil-Hat, 21 Sep 2018 @ 1:15pm

    No surprise

    This type of thing is expected when you live in a police state. Before you dismiss my assertion take inventory of the many law enforcement entities we have. If one doesn't get you another will. They make things worse to secure funding and remain relevant. Nobody is safe. When they run out of poor/black people to victimize, they'll move up the ladder until they reach the untouchable oligarchy rung.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Jim P. (profile), 23 Sep 2018 @ 1:12pm

    Drivers

    Or maybe people driving cars should be held to the same moral standards one uses when dealing with firearms since cars kill far more people than guns ever do outside of wars. If you won't follow the laws while using one, maybe you should not be allowed to use one.

    Additional tips: Obey the laws, stop acting like you are the only driver on the road and stop treating other cars and pedestrians as nuisances to your imperial whims and impediments to your inherent right to never have to slow down or stop or signal your intentions.

    Treat "No Parking" signs as though they mean it and don't use bus stops, handicapped parking and strangers' driveways as handy "I'll just be a few minutes and *I* am more important than you anyway" as places reserved for your use as a convenience.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Wendy Cockcroft, 25 Sep 2018 @ 2:30am

    Taxation =/= theft

    If only there was some way of funding essential services by asking people to contribute to them. We could make it easier for them by deducting these from their wages so they don't have to budget for them.

    Then, if we could allocate the revenues generated thereby to adequately fund courts, public defenders, and law enforcement, they wouldn't need to prey on us like this. What would we call such a system?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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