If you’re convicted of a legal offense in this state, you get punished for it.
But if you’re poor or a minority, you often get punished twice — once for the offense and a second time because of your financial situation.
A bill pending in the state Legislature (A2348/S3979) attempts to stop state and local governments from imposing so-called “predatory” fines, fees, court surcharges and other costs on defendants.
These fees and fines are imposed on top of any fines and jail sentences meted out for the actual crime, and can add up to several hundred dollars in some cases.
A surcharge on top of the fine for a basic traffic ticket imposed on someone living paycheck to paycheck, for instance, can force individuals to choose between paying the fees and paying rent, food, utilities or child care.
The accumulation of fees, and the penalties for failure to pay them, can sentence someone to a lifetime of debt to the state.
And as with a lot of New York’s court practices such as cash bail, predatory court fees unfairly and disproportionately target the poor and people of color.
In addition to the financial punishment, the court fees and fines serve as a monetary incentive that encourages police to target individuals for the sole purpose of raising revenue. And that, too, most leads to the poor and people of color.
The bill would amend several state laws — including vehicle and traffic laws (V&T), penal law, environmental conservation laws, parks laws, and state and village finance laws — to eliminate court surcharges and fees for certain offenses; lift mandatory minimum fines for penal law and V&T offenses; set aside punishment for existing unpaid fees; allow courts to determine a fee or fine based on a person’s ability to pay; prohibit recovering fees and fines from inmate accounts; and lift or vacate warrants based solely on someone not paying a fee or fine.
It also ends the practice of sending someone to jail for failure to pay a surcharge, fee, fine or restitution and sets up a mechanism for resentencing if defendants are unable to fulfill their court-imposed financial obligation. Right now, there is no requirement that a court consider a defendant’s ability to pay.
It’s true, the state and some communities will lose revenue if this bill passes. But they shouldn’t have been benefiting from them in the first place.
And the government will save money by not wasting resources chasing down these unpaid charges and by not paying the cost of imprisoning scofflaws.
In the case of financial penalties on poor and minorities, one size does not fit all.
It’s time New York end its system of predatory court fees with the passage of this bill.