Press Release: 60 NY Legislators Urge Gov. Cuomo to Take Emergency Measures to Stop Criminalizing Poverty

60 State Legislators Send Letter to Gov. Cuomo Urging Emergency Measures to Minimize Harms of Court Debt

NY Can Follow Dozens of States & Localities Changing Fines & Fees Policies to Protect Public Health & Scale Back Criminalization of Poverty

At a press conference this morning, elected officials and advocates called on Governor Cuomo to act immediately to minimize the devastating harms caused by fines, fees, and court debt for the duration of this crisis. 

A video recording of today’s event is available here

Sixty state legislators signed a letter sent to Gov. Cuomo on Friday, urging him to take seven (7) steps, using his expanded executive authority, to prevent poverty-based police-civilian interactions and incarceration, and to provide relief from widespread financial insecurity during this crisis.

In response to COVID-19, numerous jurisdictions across the U.S. are changing their fines and fees policies to protect public health, scale back the criminalization of poverty, and ensure that people can meet their basic needs. 

“Because I cannot afford to pay fines and fees, social distancing is not an option for me and I am forced to take health risks during this crisis,” said Desiree Barron of Rochester, NY, who spoke at today’s press conference. “As someone who has experience with being incarcerated for reasons related to unpaid fines and fees, I can tell you that it is terrifying. And that was before the pandemic.” 

“For months, we’ve been working hard to end the suspension of drivers licenses based on an inability to pay traffic ticket fines or failure to appear in court. Unfortunately, as millions of people are out of work during this pandemic, that inability to pay just became that much more common,” said Senator Tim Kennedy. “We already know that the communities affected by these antiquated fines and fees are often communities of color and low-income New Yorkers, and it’s that same population that is being hit hardest by COVID-19. This isn’t just an issue of economic justice – it’s a civil rights issue, which is why we’re asking the Governor to use his executive privilege to halt the collection of various fees and fines.”

“The current health crisis is causing widespread financial hardship and record unemployment claims,” said Assemblymember Pamela Hunter. “Before the legislative session was put on hold, one of my top priorities was ending driver’s license suspensions due to traffic debt. Debt was going unresolved and putting impoverished drivers in a continuous cycle of further penalization and greater debt. With economic hardship as a certainty of the recovery, it is critical that we enable New Yorkers to use their resilience that makes this state so great. We cannot afford to put our communities under greater financial strain than they’re currently enduring. The Governor must lift fines and fees for the duration of this emergency.” 

“New Yorkers have long been burdened by exorbitant, inflexible and punitive court fees, fines, and surcharges in the criminal legal system and by the drastic consequences people face if they are unable to pay the money demanded by the courts,” said NYS Senator Julia Salazar (18th Senate District). “We have a system that penalizes people for being poor. This has always hit people of color and working people the hardest. At this time when our communities are living in the epicenter of a public health disaster, with unprecedented unemployment, and with our friends and neighbors worried about how they are going to pay their rent, it is imperative that the Governor take immediate steps to ensure that New Yorkers do not also have to worry that they will be punished simply for not being able to pay a court fee or fine.”  

Lisa Schreibersdorf, Executive Director of Brooklyn Defender Services, said, “Black, Latinx, and low-income New Yorkers, like those we serve, have been hit the hardest by both COVID-19 and Broken Windows policing. Attempting to raise state revenue on the backs of these communities by imposing and collecting criminal court debt in the midst of a crisis is unconscionable. We thank the legislators for raising this issue and join them in urging Governor Cuomo to immediately order an end to court debt.”

“Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers have had their driver’s licenses suspended because they could not afford their traffic fines. Before COVID-19, a license suspension meant an impossible choice: Drive and risk a criminal charge, conviction, fines, and possibly jail or don’t drive and risk losing your job. Now, in this current crisis, choosing not to drive also means risking your life in order to access basic necessities,” said Ranit Patel, Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by The Venture Justice Fund at The Bronx Defenders. “We are seeing clients who are scared to pick up their medicine or go to the doctor because they cannot drive their car, their only safe mode of transportation, due to traffic debt. Governor Cuomo must act immediately to ensure that New Yorkers are not forced to choose between their health and livelihood and a criminal charge.”

“The use of fines and fees is a short-sighted proposition which can trap people in poverty, further destabilize already economically vulnerable communities, and increase stigma,” said Ron Deutsch, Executive Director at the Fiscal Policy Institute. “Local governments looking to restart their economies must understand the price paid by community members as well as the costs they will incur through the use of law enforcement, the court system, and the debt collection process.”

“The health and economic impacts of COVID-19 have particularly devastated New York’s communities of color, which are also disproportionately targeted for criminal fines and fees,” said Claudia Wilner, Director of Litigation and Advocacy of the National Center for Law and Economic Justice. “Without an immediate moratorium on the suspension of driver’s licenses and collection of fines and fees, New Yorkers will be deprived of funds they desperately need to withstand this public health emergency. Heaping more punishment on the people who can least afford to pay only compounds the discriminatory impact of this virus.”

“New York was overdue for fines and fees reform before COVID-19, and the need is even more urgent now,” said Antonya Jeffrey, Deputy NY State Director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “New York’s fines and fees practices are forcing our families to choose between paying to avoid incarceration, or putting food on the table. As governors from across the political spectrum have taken action, New York is behind the curve.”

COVID-19 represents both a public health and an economic crisis that has been disproportionately borne by communities of color and low-income communities,” said Katie Schaffer, Director of Advocacy and Organizing at Center for Community Alternatives. “It is unconscionable for New York to continue to collect and enforce fines, fees, and court debt that penalize our most vulnerable communities, including essential workers seeking to meet their basic needs. Many states across the country have already taken action to stop all enforcement related to nonpayment of fines, fees, and court debt while the COVID-19 crisis rages and it is critical that New York State do so as well. During this pandemic, New York State must not exacerbate the economic strain on families and communities. People’s lives and livelihoods depend on it.”