Reevaluation of Fines and Fees in the Criminal Legal System is Essential to Reducing Wealth Inequality

Testimony from NJPP Policy Analyst Marleina Ubel during The Wealth Disparity Task Force’s Criminal Justice Working Group listening session.

Published on Aug 18, 2022 in Economic Justice, Public Safety

Good evening. Thank you for the opportunity to testify. 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, racial, and social justice for New Jersey residents.

The criminal justice system creates and exacerbates racial wealth gaps. Mass incarceration and its disparate application to Black and Hispanic/Latinx communities has reduced their earnings potential, employment opportunities, and wealth accumulation. However, my focus today will be on monetary fines and fees, which can turn minor offenses into massive and long-lasting disparities, especially for people already in dire economic circumstances.

A brief overview of the terminology: fines and fees, or monetary sanctions, are costs imposed by the courts. Fines are meant to serve as a punishment, such as a ticket for jaywalking, while fees are meant to pay for the day-to-day operations of the criminal justice system. Often, when one is charged with a fine, they also are charged with a fee. However, for a person with outstanding fines or fees, the effect is the same — an amount owed that they likely cannot pay, which can balloon into substantial economic hardship down the road. A recent study showed that Black and Hispanic/Latinx defendants spent more time in the court system before disposition and owed more fines and fees 90 days after disposition than white defendants with similar charges.[i]

Let me illustrate how broken the system of fines and fees is with a fairly commonplace criminal justice system interaction: When a person is accused of a crime but can’t afford their own attorney, they are entitled to representation by a public defender. But in New Jersey, this is not free — despite the defendant having to demonstrate financial indigence to qualify for the service. State law requires that the public defender’s office bill defendants a minimum of $150.[ii] Within six months of disposition of the case, the defendant must pay the bill or be in debt to the State of New Jersey.[iii]

This applies to municipal public defenders for municipal offenses, meaning that even low-level municipal offenses can result in liens placed on low-income defendants, yet another drag on ability to build wealth, even if the charges are dismissed or other fines and fees are successfully paid.[iv]

And, while these costs do not appear enormous, roughly one-third of American adults cannot cover a $400 expense without going into debt or selling assets.[v]

Although steps have been taken by the Legislature, judiciary, and the Attorney General to reduce the impact of these fines and fees on individuals, the reality is that even cursory interaction with criminal courts can result in charges that hamper wealth accumulation. Getting a lawyer, obtaining court documents pertaining to one’s own case, and applying for expungement of one’s record all come with costs that low-income individuals are unlikely to afford.

NJPP recommends eliminating all public defender fees and funding residents’ constitutional right to an attorney through sustainable public funding. Neighboring states like New York and Pennsylvania do not charge for legal representation and neither should we.[vi]

However, beyond these fees, NJPP recommends a wholesale reevaluation of fines and fees across the criminal legal system, in line with recent legislation that heavily reduces or eliminates juvenile-justice-related fees.[vii] The vicious cycle of fines and fees, inability to pay, and subsequent increased interaction with police and courts — leading to lost work time, drained savings, and of course, additional fines and fees — must be broken to reduce wealth inequality in New Jersey.

End Notes

[i] Lindsay Bing et al., Incomparable Punishments: How Economic Inequality Contributes to the Disparate Impact of Legal Fines and Fees, RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences January 2022, 8 (2) 118-136. https://www.rsfjournal.org/content/8/2/118

[ii] N.J. Admin. Code Sec. 17:39-3.1

[iii] N.J. Stat. Sec. 2A:158A-17

[iv] N.J. Stat. Sec. 2B:24-13

[v] See Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2021 (May 2022),  p. 35-36.

[vi] Marea Beeman et al., National Legal Aid and Defender Association, At What Cost? Findings from an Examination into the Imposition of Public Defense System Fees (July 2022), tbl. 2 at p. 15, https://www.nlada.org/sites/default/files/NLADA_At_What_Cost.pdf?v=2.0

[vii] P.L. 2021, c.342.

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