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How Surcharges Punish the Poor: New York Must Combat Court Fees that Many Low-income Residents Cannot Pay

Those who are unable to pay end up in debt to the state, which can lead to significant consequences from lowering an individual’s credit score to making it harder to apply for public housing.

February 2, 2019

This op-ed originally appeared in the New York Daily News. It is co-authored by Corey Johnson, speaker of the New York City Council. 

Debtors’ prisons have been outlawed for decades, but our criminal justice system continues to needlessly punish the poor. While racial disparities in the system have been well publicized, the economically disproportionate impact of certain aspects of our criminal justice system have largely gone unnoticed and unaddressed.

Mandatory court surcharges are not supposed to be punitive, but their impact is to hurt only those who are too poor to pay, while providing little to no benefit to our justice system.

Under New York State law, everyone who is convicted of even a minor violation, such as disorderly conduct, is required to pay $120 in court surcharges and fees. These offenses are so minor that they do not constitute crimes, and so common that they represented more than 40% of all guilty pleas taken in criminal court in 2016.

But even the $120 surcharges for these non-criminal offenses are a bargain compared to the surcharges for low-level misdemeanors like jumping a turnstile or marijuana possession, which cost $250.

Unlike jail sentences, community service and every other aspect of a criminal sentence that can be tailored to individual cases, these surcharges are fixed. The same charge must be imposed on the city’s poorest and wealthiest people alike.

This kind of “equality” results in a mere nuisance to a person of means who can pay without a second thought, but a major burden to a poor person who is struggling to save every dollar in order to survive in an increasingly expensive city.

For some, the economic burden of a surcharge is insurmountable. Court data provided to the City Council indicates that of the $18 million in imposed surcharges in New York City criminal courts handling misdemeanors in 2017, the courts collected just $6.5 million.

Those who are unable to pay end up in debt to the state, which can result in civil judgments entered against them by the court. This can have significant consequences, from lowering an individual’s credit score to making it harder to apply for public housing.

At least seven states condition voting rights on payment of court debts. More than 40 statessuspend driver’s licenses for unpaid court debt, severely limiting the ability of these individuals to earn money.

Most Florida driver’s license suspensions — 1.3 million in 2017 — are initiated for failure to pay court financial obligations. In California alone, outstanding balances of unpaid criminal fees and fines reached $12.3 billion in 2016.

In a report that will be released later this year, the Brennan Center has found growing balances of unpaid criminal court debts in many local court jurisdictions. North Carolina charges 4% interest on unpaid balances; Washington State charges 12% annually against unpaid balances.

Just as we keep fighting hard to end mass incarceration in the city, we need to change this outdated notion of “justice.” Other jurisdictions are showing us the way.

San Francisco recently eliminated all court fees within their legal authority. Alameda County in California is following suit. Ed Spillane, a municipal court judge in College Station, Tex., works with defendants on a range of alternative sentencing that better apply to individual circumstances.

The New York Legislature should eliminate these antiquated surcharges, or at the very least require judges to waive them or apply them and adjust the amount according to what an individual can afford to pay. We need to stop punishing people for being poor.

Photo Credit: Chris Ryan/Getty