The Fines and Fees Justice Center set out to create a movement to eliminate the fines and fees that distort justice. Their goal is to eliminate fees in the justice system and to ensure that fines are equitably imposed and enforced. The New York State campaign is the first sustained effort to reform harmful fines and fees practices statewide. As the protests surrounding the killing of George Floyd and countless other unarmed people of color highlight the racial injustice in America, the correlation between these grotesque events and excessive fines and fees can not be overlooked. Nor can municipalities be allowed to balance their COVID-19 related budget deficits through fees and fines.
New York needs immediate fines and fees reform in response to the COVID-19 crisis, which disproportionately harms the most vulnerable New Yorkers, especially people living paycheck-to-paycheck and people involved in the criminal legal system.
An estimated 2.5 million New Yorkers work in service and sales fields shut down by the crisis and need immediate economic relief. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers can’t legally drive to meet their basic needs until New York stops suspending licenses for traffic debt. The virus is spreading in New York’s jails and prisons, which have stopped allowing visitors but have continued charging exorbitant rates for phone calls and other vital forms of communication.
To proactively address the consequences of COVID-19 for individuals who owe fines and fees, New York must make immediate changes to criminal, traffic, and municipal ordinance fines and fee policies.
Immediate Recommendations for All New York Communities:
- Stop suspending driver’s licenses for not paying traffic tickets or not appearing to contest them, and reinstate licenses suspended for those reasons.
- Release individuals with a warning who are driving on a suspended license. Under no circumstances should these individuals be arrested, jailed, or prosecuted.
- Stop issuing bench warrants and vacate existing warrants for unpaid fines, fees, or failure to appear for court debt.
- End all collection of fines, fees, and court debt.
- Stop imposing penalties for late or missed payments of fines, fees, and court debt.
- Stop issuing parking tickets and municipal code violations.
Policy Recommendations for People in the Criminal Legal System:
- Waive any fees associated with health care in prisons and jails.
- Provide free liquid soap, hand sanitizer, and other disinfecting products.
- Provide free, easily accessible communication, including phone calls and emails.
- Stop jailing or detaining individuals for unpaid fines and fees and release those already detained.
- Stop extending or revoking probation and parole for unpaid fines and fees or other technical violations.
The Effects of Driver’s License Suspension for Traffic Debt:
The fines and fees issue hurting the most New Yorkers is driver’s license suspension for Traffic Debt. Between January 2016 and April 2018, New York issued nearly 1.7 million driver’s license suspensions for Traffic Debt. Traffic Debt suspensions force an impossible choice: Stop driving and lose access to work, childcare, health care, food, and other necessities, or keep driving on a suspended license and risk criminal charges and more unaffordable fines and fees.
New Yorkers face this problem every day because they do not have enough money to pay for traffic tickets. This cycle of debt and punishment especially burdens communities of color as people in those communities are disproportionately stopped, ticketed, charged, and convicted.
End State and Local Fees:
New York’s state and local budgets shouldn’t rely on fines and fees for revenue, and police shouldn’t be focused on raising money. New York’s state and local government should end:
- Mandatory surcharges (state fees for every conviction)
- The state law that allows cities to impose probation fees of up to $30 per month
- Garnishment of commissary accounts of incarcerated people to collect fines and fees
- Supervision fees for probation and terms, e.g. SCRAM alcohol-monitoring bracelets
- Diversion fees for programs like drug and alcohol treatment
- Corrections fees for serviceslike phone calls, voicemail, money transfers, and bail fees–some as high as 7%
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