'A predatory fee instituted to make sure we can keep the cycle going of charging primarily low-income defendants,' in the words of one analyst
On a recent blustery September morning, Melissa Taylor stood in front of a gathered crowd in New York City. "New York State has been waging an economic war against poor people for decades," she said.
Taylor, now 45, said she had been arrested at age 19 for failing to pay an old $90 probation fee that she had not known existed, and spent the night in jail. Other small brushes with the criminal justice system also dogged her: as a teenager, she began driving with a learner's permit without an adult in the car. Fines and fees for those offenses eventually reached $5,000, keeping her from driving and pursuing her dream of going to college.
What Taylor calls "economic war against poor people" is well-documented. A Justice Department investigation into the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, called Brown's death "driven by overriding pressure from the city to use law enforcement not as a public service, but as a tool for raising revenue."
Since that investigation, several states and the District of Columbia have enacted reforms to address the issue, and national media are taking a closer look. But new momentum behind legislation in New York, which ranks with far less progressive states in the scope of its punitive fines and fees problem, may go a long way toward galvanizing national reform.
"Fines and fees don't just plague big cities," said Antonya Jeffrey, the New York State director for the Fines and Fees Justice Center.
"Smaller cities in our state experience this harm even greater because a lot of the fees are associated with traffic, and you need a car to get around there. If we're able to accomplish this in New York we'll set precedents for other states. If New York can be a leader, I can see it helping nationally," she said.
Precise data on the scope of the problem is notoriously hard to collect, in part because it happens at the micro-local level. Those who impose the fees are also reluctant to open their files.
Still, Jeffrey's group has published extensive research on New York's problems, sliced and diced several ways. Among them: a dozen New York localities collect more than 20% of their revenues from fines and fees.
"Police acting as armed debt collectors risk Black and Brown lives and extract wealth from New York's poorest communities," the Fines and Fees Justice Center writes in a report titled "New York's Ferguson Problem."
Fees add up
While the use of fines can be a legitimate way to discourage violations, it's the fees that get tacked on top that can add up, as they did for Taylor. Even if a defendant happens to be tried in front of a sympathetic judge, New York State's "mandatory surcharge" can't be waived, in part because it's used to finance the local court system.
Fines and fees are also disproportionately levied on poorer people -- mostly communities of color. In 2018, Black people made up 14% of the New York state population, the Fines and Fees Justice Center's report notes, but accounted for 38% of all arrests and 48% of all prison sentences. Hispanic people accounted for 19% of the population, but 24% of arrest and 22% of sentences.
They are often wielded in what advocates call a predatory manner.
"I am routinely harassed by the Suffolk County police who pull me over nearly every other week and ticket me," wrote Charlie Jones in testimony supporting the statewide campaign. "I've never gotten a DWI or a speeding ticket. Instead, the tickets are for nonsense like 'not enough air in my tires,' 'driving without my lights on' or 'obstruction of view because I had a Christmas tree dangling from my rear view mirror. The tickets are about $250 each, half in fines and half in fees that get tacked on top."
New York collects far more per capita revenue through fines and forfeitures (seized property) than most other states, according to a 2017 study: $110 compared to $68 in California, $60 in Illinois, and $41 in North Carolina.
And, as documented in a 2020 report from a group of law schools led by Yale, New York is home to approximately 1,300 town and village courts that get most of their revenues from fines and fees, suggesting that judges in those jurisdictions "have an incentive to show that their courts earn back the money spent on them, given that they're funded almost entirely by the locality."
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Aravind Boddupalli is an analyst in the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. Like many researchers, Boddupalli said, he found himself drawn to the fines and fees issue by the 2015 Justice Department report on Ferguson, which he called "a huge reveal of something advocates had been talking about for a while."
That conflict of interest inherent in courts or municipalities levying fees to fund their operations is "not about budget gaps, but more a predatory fee instituted to make sure we can keep the cycle going of charging primarily low-income defendants," Boddupalli told MarketWatch.
"It's the clearest picture of where the criminal justice system's inequities come into state and local revenue collections, which we normally consider a colorblind system."
The End Predatory Court Fees Act was introduced in Albany in 2020 by two progressives, Senator Julia Salazar and Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou. Neither responded to MarketWatch requests for comment.
Relying on law breaking for revenue
In Washington, Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, and Sen. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, introduced the "Driving for Opportunity Act," reflecting a recognition, Boddupalli noted, that these methods aren't just unjust, but also a "counterintuitive penalty" to keep people from their means of getting to work, and from accessing health care.
Politicians not normally drawn to progressive causes also note that it's a regressive, inefficient revenue raiser -- it costs anywhere from 40 cents to $1.15 to bring in a dollar of fines and fees revenue -- and above all, a method that relies on a cycle of law breaking to work.
Still, the injustice is what motivates advocates like Jeffrey.
"For me, it is really about the unfair playing field that currently exists for people of color and low-income communities," she said in an interview. "Not being able to catch a break even if they are, quote unquote law abiding citizens. These interactions make people interact with the criminal justice system unnecessarily and it harms their ability to build wealth."
"We are trying to raise revenues for programs that localities really do need, but why are we trying to do it on the backs of people who can least afford it?"
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09-23-21 1025ETCopyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.