Fines and Fees Disproportionately Harm Low-Income Families

Testimony from NJPP Senior Policy Analyst Marleina Ubel in opposition of imposing a fine for underage drinking.

Published on Dec 14, 2023 in Public Safety

Good afternoon, Chairman Sarlo, Vice Chair Cunningham, and distinguished members of the committee. My name is Marleina Ubel, and I am a senior policy analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP), a nonpartisan think tank focused on advancing economic, social, and racial justice for New Jersey residents.

I am here to express NJPP’s strong opposition to S3954. While I fully acknowledge the importance of addressing underage drinking and its potential consequences, the provisions outlined in this bill will have unintended and detrimental effects on young individuals and their families.

The proposed increase in penalties, particularly the imposition of a $100 or $50 fine for underage possession or consumption of alcohol, is overly punitive and not grounded in evidence. In fact, fines have been shown to not be effective deterrents, especially for teens. On top of that, rather than addressing the root causes of underage drinking, such as social, familial, or economic factors, the bill seems to focus solely on punitive measures which will not lead to the desired outcome of reducing alcohol-related issues among young people. In fact, this punitive approach could perpetuate a cycle of financial strain for families already facing economic challenges, potentially exacerbating the very issues the bill seeks to address.

Moreover, because these fines disproportionately fall on low-income families who are the least likely to be able to afford to pay, they often cost much more in administrative costs than they produce in revenue, increasing the burden on our already burdened court system.

The proposed fine also raises questions about fairness and equity, as it fails to account for the diverse socio-economic backgrounds of young individuals who may engage in underage drinking. There is no racial impact statement for this bill, but if there were, it would likely show you that Black and brown communities are the most likely to receive these fines. Without a nuanced understanding of the underlying factors contributing to this behavior, imposing a flat fine is a misguided attempt at addressing a complex societal issue – one that could leave poor families spiraling while others barely feel the effect.

I live in a small, relatively wealthy town. Since I moved there years ago, long before the decriminalization of cannabis, if youth were engaging in underage drinking or substance use or otherwise disruptive behavior, police never arrested them. They called their parents. They took them home without handcuffs on. The law this bill is seeking to undermine just affords the privilege that wealthy families already enjoy to everyone.

I implore you to reconsider the punitive nature of the proposed fine and to instead focus on evidence-based approaches to tackling underage drinking. Comprehensive educational programs, community outreach, and support services have been proven to be more effective in addressing the root causes of this issue.

Thank you for your attention to this crucial matter.

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