Good morning, Chairman Sarlo and distinguished members of the committee. My name is Marleina Ubel, and I am a policy analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP), a nonpartisan think tank focused on advancing economic, social, and racial justice for New Jersey residents.
Thank you for posting this bill and allowing me the opportunity to testify in support of eliminating public defender fees. As a social worker and policy analyst with extensive knowledge of this issue, I am compelled to highlight the importance of this legislation for our legal system and the urgent need for its implementation.
New Jersey has long been a trailblazer in criminal legal system reform, recognizing the importance of equitable access to justice for all individuals, regardless of their socioeconomic status. However, the imposition of public defender fees creates an insurmountable burden for low-income individuals, exacerbating existing inequities and undermining the principles of fairness and equality upon which our justice system is built. Most Americans cannot afford a $400 emergency and based on the federal poverty level, over 800,000 New Jerseyans live in poverty, whereas estimates based on the “True Poverty Level” suggest that closer to 3 million residents—a third of the state’s population—live in poverty.[i] These individuals often struggle to afford to meet their basic needs, let alone bear the financial burden of legal representation.
Eliminating public defender fees is not only a matter of justice but also a fiscally responsible decision. The administrative costs associated with collecting and enforcing these fees often surpass the revenue generated. Additionally, by removing this financial burden, we can redirect resources towards the Office of the Public Defender, ultimately leading to better outcomes for defendants, the public defenders who represent them, and the justice system as a whole.
Moreover, the general public is largely under the assumption that public defenders are free. Many people were shocked to learn that in New Jersey, of all places, this is not the case. This is because everyone has a constitutional right to representation and has heard time and time again in popular media that if you cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed for you. I know that being a lawmaker involves balancing what one believes to be good policy, grounded in facts, and the wants and needs of the public that one is chosen to represent. This is one of those bills that does both.
Several states across the country, including our neighbors New York and Pennsylvania, do not charge for public defenders. By joining them, New Jersey can continue to lead by example and demonstrate its commitment to upholding the principles enshrined in our Constitution.
In conclusion, I urge you to support S3771 and work towards the elimination of public defender fees in New Jersey. By doing so, we can ensure that our justice system remains accessible to all, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Let us strive towards a more equitable future, where constitutional rights are not behind a paywall.
Thank you for your attention. I am available for any questions.
[i] New Jersey State Policy Lab, Rutgers University. October 21, 2022. https://policylab.rutgers.edu/perspectives-on-poverty-in-new-jersey-2008-2020/#:~:text=Based%20on%20the%20federal%20poverty,in%20poverty%20the%20same%20 year.