Currently, in New York, the reliance on fines and fees as a revenue source is extremely troubling. A national study found that 34 New York localities collect over 10 percent of their revenue via fines and fees with a dozen of them receiving over 20 percent of their revenue that way. This is just as bad as what the Justice Department discovered in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police killing of Michael Brown. Though New York elected officials may claim otherwise, New York has a serious Ferguson problem. The full findings can be found in an excellent report released by the Fines and Fees Justice Center, which shows how the state’s reliance on fines and fees revenue encourages policing-for-profit, criminalizes poverty, and endangers Black and brown lives.
New York’s fines and fees vary in their application and purpose. Fines are supposed to punish and discourage people from breaking the law. However, most come from building or traffic violations for routine issues, such as driving with a broken taillight. Additional fees on top of fines serve solely to generate government revenue and are often automatic administrative charges such as Public Safety fees attached to traffic tickets or surcharges for convictions. Making matters worse, payment plans are largely unavailable, and judges do not waive or reduce the surcharge based on the inability to pay. Doing this is a fiscal policy failure, undermining fairness, transparency, and accountability.
New York’s fees are a regressive tax that disproportionately falls on low-income people, and people of color. Under this system police and the court system are used as tax collectors to raise revenue for state, county, and city budgets. The harsh consequences of not paying fees and surcharges create a two-tiered system. A wealthy person paying a $175 surcharge for a misdemeanor conviction may face a minor inconvenience, while an indigent person might lose nearly half of their available emergency savings or else face debt, a civil judgement, or jail time for nonpayment. Not only is this system unfair but it is not a sound fiscal strategy.
New York police and court data do not capture the impact of fines and fees by race and ethnicity but the targeting of New Yorkers of color by the criminal legal system is evident throughout the process. Relative to their share of the population, the rates of stops, arrests, convictions, and sentences are all higher for Black and Hispanic New Yorkers. These rates demonstrate how these same communities bear the corresponding burden of fees.
For far too many New Yorkers, these costs compound the long-lasting consequences of a conviction creating a cycle of poverty, as they face barriers to employment, housing, and government benefits, thus making repayment much more difficult. Even for low-level violations, nonpayment of fees can lead to a public court record and court debt that stays on the books for twenty years. Worse, some localities routinely arrest and incarcerate people who are unable to pay, violating the constitutional guarantees of due process, equal protection, and the bar on excessive fines.
- End predatory legal system fees. New York should immediately abolish all criminal and traffic fees and surcharges including:
- Mandatory surcharges
- Parole fees
- Probation fees
- DNA databank fee
- End commissary garnishment for court debt
- End arrest and incarceration for nonpayment of fines and fees
- End mandatory minimum fines
- Transparently report all fines and fees imposed and collected within the legal system
Unfortunately, even in the wake of success, New York refuses to take necessary measures. On December 31, 2020, Governor Cuomo signed the Driver’s License Suspension Reform Act, ending the practice of suspending a person’s driver’s license when they cannot afford to pay a traffic ticket. However, he watered the bill down to the severe detriment of people desperate for relief. He removed the provision ended suspensions for missing a traffic hearing and sets payment plans at2% of a person’s monthly income or $25 a month, whichever is greater. The original bill set the minimum at $10 a month.
To listen to our interview with Fines and Fees Justice Center Co-Director Joanna Weiss click here.