New York’s Ferguson Problem- How the state’s racist fee system punishes poverty, lacks transparency, and is overdue for reform

This paper shows how New York’s criminal justice fines and fees practices worsen racial disparities and punish low-income people. Fees disproportionately impact communities of color who are overrepresented in traffic stops, arrests, and conviction rates, and mandatory surcharges and other court fees are often imposed without considering a person’s ability to pay. The price tag of these regressive costs has increased over the years. The authors present data that support these claims and argue that limited data about the imposition and collection of fines and fees prevents stakeholders from realizing the harms of the current system. Recommendations for reform are included at the end of the paper. 

You can read the full text of the paper here.

Key Findings 


  • 34 localities in New York are more reliant or about as reliant on fines and fees as Ferguson, Missouri was when it was investigated by the Department of Justice after the killing of Michael Brown. 
  • The cost of mandatory surcharges for violations, felonies, and misdemeanors has increased by 178 percent, 92 percent, and 75 percent more than the expected inflation-adjusted amount, respectively. 
  • Buffalo and Long Island created new local traffic conviction fees that typically add $100 to a person’s court debt balance; other jurisdictions in New York impose unauthorized probation fees. 
  • In 2019, New York City’s criminal courts collected a little more than 30 percent (or $3 million) while more than $10 million in surcharges was imposed. New York’s Supreme Court collected about 16 percent ($611,000) of the $4 million that was imposed. 
  • According to traffic stop data from 2017, in four of the seven New York counties that were surveyed, the percentage of traffic stops involving Black drivers was double the percentage of Black drivers in the county.  
  • A survey of 980 Alabama residents who owed or were paying court debt showed that 83 percent sacrificed money for rent, food, medical bills, car payments, and child support to pay court fines and fees, 38 percent committed a crime to pay court debt, and 66 percent received money or food assistance that they would not have needed if it were not for their court debt. 



  • Abolish all criminal and traffic fees and surcharges, including mandatory surcharges, parole fees, probation fees, and the DNA Databank fee. 
  • End the garnishment of commissary for court debt. 
  • End arrest and incarceration for nonpayment of fines and fees. 
  • End mandatory minimum fines. 
  • Report all fines and fees imposed and collected within the legal system.
Angela LaScala-Gruenewald, Katie Adamides, and Melissa Toback
Fines and Fees Justice Center
No Price on Justice Coalition