NY Lawmakers Introduce Bill to Eliminate Predatory Court Fines & Fees
New Report Reveals How Policing-for-Profit Is Criminalizing Poverty and Endangering Black & Brown New Yorkers
At a press conference this morning, elected officials and advocates from the No Price on Justice campaign announced the introduction of the End Predatory Court Fees Act, sponsored by Senator Julia Salazar and Assembly Member Yuh-Line Niou. This legislation would eliminate court fees, mandatory minimum fines, incarceration on the basis of unpaid fines and fees, and garnishment of commissary accounts. Directly affected people called for the passage of the End Predatory Court Fees Act, as well as companion legislation to eliminate parole and probation fees, sponsored by Senator Luis Sepulveda and Assembly Member Carmen de la Rosa.
The press conference also served as the launch for the No Price on Justice campaign and was accompanied by the publication of a first-of-its-kind report, New York’s Ferguson Problem, that shows how the state’s reliance on fines and fees revenue encourages policing-for-profit, criminalizes poverty, and endangers Black and brown lives.
Senator Julia Salazar said, “New York has a strong and dedicated state-wide movement that fights for fairness and justice in the criminal legal system. I am proud to work with this movement and thrilled to introduce this ground-breaking legislation in the NYS Senate. This bill eliminates burdensome, discriminatory, and counter-productive mandatory court fees and surcharges from the legal system, requires judges to look at an individual’s financial circumstances before imposing a fine, and eliminates any possibility of incarceration, civil judgments, or unnecessary drains on limited family resources. These fees and surcharges are essentially another way of unfairly making poor people shoulder financial burdens that ought to be the responsibility of those with significant wealth. It is time to eliminate them, as there should not be a price on justice.”
Right now, New York State imposes automatic court fees on every single conviction and traffic ticket. These court fees fall disproportionately on Black and Latinx communities. They also criminalize poverty. If you can’t afford to pay fines and fees, you risk civil judgment, an arrest warrant, or even a jail sentence.
“Our current criminal justice system is deeply flawed, perpetuates racial bias, and predominantly affects our communities of color,” said Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou. “Unpaid fees and surcharges can be racked up while folks are in prison where there is little ability to pay. It can then affect an individual’s credit and ability to secure housing which increases recidivism and further prevents incarcerated individuals from returning to society. These fees and surcharges disproportionately affect individuals who are least able to pay. We need to work towards a more equitable criminal justice system and that starts with eliminating these fees.”
These court fines and fees also lead to policing for profit. After police killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, the Department of Justice investigated the city. It found that Ferguson relied heavily on fines and fees revenue — and as a result, the police routinely violated the constitutional rights of residents and aggressively policed for profit. New York has the same problem now as Ferguson did in 2014. In New York State today, 35 jurisdictions are about as reliant or even more reliant on fines and fees revenue as Ferguson was. A national analysis by Governing revealed that New York is one of the states most reliant on fines and fees for revenue. And over 500 jurisdictions in New York increased their reliance on fines and fees revenue since 2015. This system of policing for profit puts New Yorkers of color at greater risk of a potentially deadly interaction with police.
“The criminal justice system disproportionately targets and jails communities of color and keeps them trapped in the system with arbitrary fees,” said Assemblymember Carmen De La Rosa. She demanded that we pass legislation to remove the parole fee (A.5968) and “ensure that the lives and futures of those that have interacted with the criminal justice system are not compromised and that this population is not criminalized any further for inability to pay.” She urged us to “step up for vulnerable populations” and “ensure that we refrain from treating individuals that have been or are in prison like second-class citizens.”
“These fees are a significant burden on formerly incarcerated individuals and their families as they struggle to find employment and adjust to life outside of prison,” said Senator Luis Sepulveda. “We need to work on ways to make the re-entry process easier, not harder by imposing fees. My bill S4322/A5968 would get rid of the $30 parole supervision fee however, Assembly member De La Rosa and I will be amending our bill to also include the removal of probation fees. Additionally, I would also like to commend Senator Salazar and Assembly member Niou for working on a bill that would fundamentally change the financial burden people face when brought into the criminal legal system.”
New York’s court fees were designed to raise revenue, and in this way are a regressive, backdoor tax on those least able to pay. This is particularly inhumane when New York garnishes commissary accounts to collect court debt from incarcerated people. New York garnishes up to 80% of the money loved ones deposit in commissary accounts. People in prison depend on this money for food, hygiene, and communication with the outside. New York further extracts wealth from those least able to afford it but charging people on parole and probation a monthly fee. This fee is a barrier to reentry when people are coming home from jail or prison, trying to reestablish their lives, and often without work.
“New York’s fines and fees system is highway robbery,” says Anitria Blue, a community leader with New Hour Women and Children – Long Island and Center for Community Alternatives. “It disproportionately impacts working people who cannot afford the extra fees that tack onto traffic tickets and other convictions. It is particularly alarming for Black and Latinx people because this predatory court fee system puts you at risk of arrest and further interaction with the police.”
“Garnishing the commissary accounts of incarcerated people because of court fees is inhumane,” says Jesse Johnston, a member of Center for Community Alternatives. “It forces you to make dehumanizing choices between deodorant and shampoo or between soap and toothpaste. You are forced to choose between your health, your cleanliness, your physical and mental wellbeing. New York can and must change these laws to respect the dignity of all people.”
“My son is a diabetic and incarcerated in a New York State prison,” said Robin DelPiore, a member of Center for Community Alternatives. “When his sugar levels are out of normal range, he needs emergency access to food, so I send him commissary money to ensure his health and safety. But that money that I send to my son for potentially life saving items gets garnished by the Department of Corrections to pay state fees, including a sentencing fee, a DNA fee, and an ID fee. I send him this money to make sure he stays alive, and they are taking that peace of mind away from me. The money they garnish is not coming from my son’s pocket, it’s coming from my pocket. They are punishing me as his family. That’s why it’s critical that New York passes the End Predatory Court Fees Act.”
Lindsey Smith of Brooklyn Defender Services read a statement from her client, J, who was ordered to pay $120 in court fees that he couldn’t afford. “I told the court the truth, which is that I don’t have any money except my SSI. It’s barely enough for rent and food.” J’s statement continued, “I think the new bill is a good thing. These fees make it harder for people to succeed, especially young people. Everybody deserves a second chance and these fees stand in the way.”
“Since coming home life has been a struggle,” said Rondese Hilton-Jones, New York Communities for Change Long Island member. “I can’t provide for my family and my children. Predatory court fines and fees are bleeding me and keeping my family down. Predatory court fees don’t just punish the individual they punish entire families. NY needs to put an end to this now.”
“I was incarcerated for 15 years and have only been home two months. I use a wheelchair so in addition to reintegrating in other ways, I also have to deal with physically adjusting to society due to my handicap. Parole and probation fees impose further punishment when people need to reintegrate,” said Jermain Barrett, a member of Center for Community Alternatives and graduate of Cornell University’s Prison Education Program. “This is harmful to individuals, their families and communities.”
No Price on Justice is a coalition of economic and racial justice organizations, grassroots groups, and impacted people working to end New York’s predatory court fines and fees. Our mission is to end legal system fees and find more equitable ways to fund our government.
Members of the No Price on Justice coalition include:
Brooklyn Defender Services*
Center for Community Alternatives*
Center for Employment Opportunities
Children’s Defense Fund
Citizen Action of New York
Color of Change
Community Service Society
Fair Fines and Fees Coalition—Buffalo
Fiscal Policy Institute*
Fines & Fees Justice Center*
It’s A Process
Legal Aid Society of New York
National Center for Law and Economic Justice
New Hour for Women and Children—Long Island
New York Communities for Change*
New York County Defender Services
Parole Preparation Project
*Steering committee member