Criminal Justice: How New York Makes Poor People Pay To Be Prosecuted

NY has enabled a system that puts the burden of paying for the courts and other services on the backs of some of its poorest
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Photos: NYCLU\Wikimedia Commons

While the wealthiest among us largely avoid paying taxes, the cost of operating government services falls on those with the least means. One of the places this appalling dynamic plays out is in our judicial system.

For nearly four decades, New York has enabled a system that puts the burden of paying for the courts and other services on the backs of some of its poorest residents.

Across the state, courts and other services rely on revenue from mandatory fees and fines imposed on criminal defendants and those with traffic violations. Mandatory fees of up to $300 attach to every conviction, including traffic infractions and guilty pleas, even for minor offenses. For certain offenses, convictions also carry mandatory minimum fines that judges are unable to adjust based on a person’s ability to pay.

These court-imposed debts can total hundreds or even thousands of dollars for some people. State law offers no avenue to have mandatory court fees excused, ensuring that those who simply cannot afford to pay will carry those debts for life.

For many people who have convictions, the financial burdens of these predatory fees and fines can make it impossible to move on from a brush with the criminal legal system and lead normal lives. People who are incarcerated will automatically have the meager wages they earn in prison garnished to pay court-imposed debts, and people can even be jailed for failing to pay.

The result of New York’s pernicious system of fines and fees ensures that the state’s court system is funded on the backs of its poorest residents – and those most likely to be targeted by an unjust criminal legal system.

This was not always the case.

New York’s mandatory fee structure was implemented in the 1980s, amid a national wave of tough-on-crime political posturing. The idea was that defendants should be charged a “user fee” for court proceedings that the state has subjected them to.

This method of raising revenue was backwards then, and it is inexcusable today. The criminal legal system is supposed to protect the rights of low-income defendants. That’s why, for example, anyone who cannot afford an attorney has the right to have one appointed for them. Mandatory court fees turn such protections on their head, requiring those with the least means to effectively pay to be prosecuted.

Such a scheme is indefensible in light of current understandings about how the criminal legal system operates. We have encountered far too many reminders in recent years of the racially unjust reality of policing and our criminal court system. Black New Yorkers are stopped by police at higher rates and make up a disproportionate share of arrests and people in prison. Most convictions are the result of plea bargains made without a trial, often under the pressure of coercive prosecutorial tactics.

The racial disparities and injustice in the broader criminal legal system ensure that the costs of fines and fees will also be borne disproportionately by Black and Brown New Yorkers. By attaching fees to every single conviction, the state is replicating and compounding the well-known harms of these systems.

Tying revenue to criminal and traffic convictions also creates a perverse incentive for officers to aggressively crack down on minor offenses in the interest of funding their own departments. In 2015, a DOJ investigation unearthed how reliance on court fees and fines drove police to explicitly use law enforcement as a means of raising revenue, exacerbating racist police practices. Recent exposes have shown how police across the country, including in New York, use predatory traffic stops as a revenue booster, sometimes with deadly consequences.

The State Legislature can begin the process of undoing these injustices. The End Predatory Court Fees Act would eliminate the mandatory court fees that place the burden on funding the state court system on the backs of the State’s poorest people.

The bill would also eliminate mandatory minimum fines and require judges to account for a person’s economic circumstances when issuing a fine. Finally, the bill would end the garnishment of commissary funds to pay court-imposed debts and end the unjust practice of jailing people for failure to pay.

Government revenue should not be extracted from New York’s poorest residents, and our courts shouldn’t function as debt collectors. The End Predatory Court Fees Act would be a significant step towards dismantling a system that penalizes people for their economic conditions.

We shouldn’t put the burden of funding the criminal legal system on the people unjustly caught in its grip.

By Zach Ahmad NYCLU

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