Advocates and legislators gathered outside of a supermarket in Brooklyn last week, rallying behind the End Predatory Court Fees Act, a piece of Albany legislation aimed at eliminating New York court surcharges and fees including mandatory minimum fines, incarceration on the basis of unpaid fines and fees and garnishment of commissary accounts.
“In grocery stores like this one across the state, food prices are surging by an average of 10 percent,” Peggy Herrera, a community leader with the Center for Community Alternatives, told the assembled demonstrators.
“Every day, people who are struggling to pay their court fines and fees walk down these aisles doing an impossible math equation in their heads. Do I buy food and diapers for my children or do I send that money to the courts to pay off my fees,” Herrera said.
Herrera was arrested after calling emergency services for her son with mental health challenges. After the charges against her were dropped she said it took for years to pay off all the fines and fees.
“Families like mine are taxed, exploited and robbed by these fees. We are criminalized for our poverty, and forced into an endless cycle of debt and punishment,” Herrera said.
An earlier version of the legislation was introduced in 2019 with the legislation being reintroduced recently by State Senator Julia Salazar and Assemblymember Kenny Burgos.
“What it really is, is a regressive tax on the most low-income and vulnerable New Yorkers. By continuing this system of court fines, fees, and surcharges in New York State, we are perpetuating punishment” Salazar said, noting that even basic traffic infractions come with costs to the perpetrator.
“Keep in mind that many of these fees and fines were never intended, they are not even sensibly supposed to be punishment, they were created as this backward, progressive mechanism for raising revenue and cost for our court system, but the responsibility for funding our court system should never fall on the backs of working people. Right now that is the reality in our city, it doesn’t need to be this way,” Salazar said.
The Center for Community Alternatives, one of the organizers of Wednesday’s rally, referenced a December report by the Fines and Fees Justice Center that documented fines and fees in all 50 states. The report shows New York has some of the harshest fees present in criminal, traffic, and local ordinance cases.
“New York is one of only four states — along with Alaska, Minnesota and Mississippi — with statutes explicitly providing that an individual’s inability to pay does not exempt them from owing these fees,” wrote Katie Shaffer from the Center for Community Alternatives in a recent press release.
“As public defenders, we see how our state’s reliance on predatory court fines and fees criminalizes poverty and extracts money from people who cannot afford it, creating a cycle of policing-for-profit that endangers lives. We urge the New York State legislature to pass the End Predatory Court Fees Act this session to end this unjust practice,” said Jacqueline Gosdigian, Senior Policy Counsel, Brooklyn Defender Services in a statement, mirroring the sentiments heard by advocates at Wednesday’s rally.
Council member Lincoln Restler from Council District 33 where the rally was taking place said at the rally that he will be introducing a resolution in the city council to support this bill.
“We need to get rid of inappropriate fees and surcharges. We need to make sure that when people are imposed with fines, that they’re income-based, based on what they can afford. Because for the millionaire, a $300 fee, a $100 fee is something very different than for the minimum wage worker, and it should be fair,” Restler said.
“Our fine system should be fair, and that is what this legislation will do. So we’re gonna push the city council to make the voices of New York City heard and with Senator Salazar and assembly member Virgos’ leadership, we’re gonna get it done.”
Both versions of the bill are currently in committee.
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