‘A system that perpetuates poverty’: Pols, advocates rally to eliminate predatory court fees

The state Supreme Court Building in Downtown Brooklyn, where they impose court fees on people accused of a crime.
The state Supreme Court Building in Downtown Brooklyn.
Photo by Aidan Graham

Politicians and advocates gathered on Feb. 22 to demand that the state legislature end onerous court fees, which disproportionately harm low income New Yorkers and “perpetuates poverty” in the Empire State. 

“Are you aware that it’s still a crime here in New York in 2023, and are you aware that if you are poor you will fund that same system that perpetuates your poverty and keeps you poor,” said Bronx Assembly Member Kenny Burgos, a sponsor of the End Predatory Court Fees Act.

The legislation, which is pending in the state legislature in Albany, would eliminate court fees and mandatory minimum fines in the state’s judicial system, as well as prevent incarceration on the basis of unpaid fines and fees.

Fees for people placed in the judicial system can range anywhere from $25 to $300, with additional fees resulting from unpaid previous fines. 

To call attention to the idea, the group of legislators and supporters took to the sidewalk outside of Key Food Supermarket in Brooklyn Heights with signs like “No Price on Justice,” and lamented that lower-income residents bore the brunt of court fees, while more affluent New Yorkers were less susceptible to their negative reproductions. 

“What it really is is a regressive tax on the most low-income and vulnerable New Yorkers,” said State Sen. Julia Salazar, who is the primary sponsor of the legislation in Albany’s upper chamber. 

If enacted, the legislation would follow the lead of other states and localities that have made similar measures, and would do several things to stop the scourge of poor people being unduly burdened by court fees — including eliminating the state’s 1980s-era mandatory surcharge that charges money to those accused of offenses. 

These surcharges help raise revenue for the state, and apply to almost all people accused of any crimes. Unlike the vast majority of 50 states, a person’s financial inability to come up with the money is irrelevant, and the judicial system cannot make an exception for those cases. 

If someone does not pay those fees, they are subject to even more punishment, whether it be even more fees, or potentially incarceration. 

That perpetuates a system of poverty, said proponents of the bill.

“We are criminalized by poverty and forced into endless cycles of debt and punishment. We must pass the End Predatory Court Fees Act,” said Peggy Herrera, from the Center for Community Alternatives.

Making matters worse, the cost of basic needs are rising all across the state due to inflation, which forces many New York families to face an impossible choice: whether to put food on the table, or to pay down court debt in order to avoid incarceration and additional fees.

In 2022, food prices increased drastically — 10% on average — putting families living paycheck-to-paycheck in a precarious position.

“Groceries stores like this one across the state food prices are increasing by 10% on average, everyday people are struggling to pay their court fines and fees and walk down these isles doing an impossible math equation in their heads,” said Herrera. “Do I buy the food and diapers my children need or do I send that money to the courts to pay off my fees?”

“I know firsthand how hard it is for families to pay these fees,” said Herrera.

“Predatory court fees are explicitly intended as revenue raisers, levied against New Yorkers least able to afford them,” said Antonya Jeffrey, from Fines and Fees Justice Center. 

To hammer home the point, the supporters of the bill noted that state and local governments often spend more money attempting to collect the fees that payment of the fees would actually be worth — pointing towards an exchange between Chief Administrative Judge of the Courts, Tamiko Amaker, and Assembly Member Burgos earlier this month, where Amaker was unable to give a definitive answer. 

“Predatory court fees make us less safe by using law enforcement as debt collectors for money New Yorkers simply don’t have,” said Jeffrey.

Rather than rely on those accused of a crime to help raise revenue to run the judicial system, the state should simply cover the cost entirely through tax revenue, said James Innis of New York Communities for Change.

“The New York state budget for this year is 220 billion dollars, he said. “Why do we have to tax the most vulnerable when we have enough money to pay as a state?”

“Why would we put people through this when the government can responsibly fund important agencies rather than depending on unsustainable and unreleased sources of revenue in the mandatory surcharge,” said Jeffrey.

Lincoln Restler, the Council Member representing the area where the rally took place, voiced his support for the measure. 

“I’m going to be introducing a resolution to support this bill,” said Restler.

Replacing the revenue generated from the court fees could potentially be difficult, but would mark a worth-while cause, said Burgos. 

“If you believe in a true system of justice if you believe we shouldn’t impose a 20 million dollar tax on our poorest communities, and if you believe that it is not a crime to be poor in the state of New York, then you also believe that we should end our predatory court fees,” he said.

“The responsibility for raising funds for our court systems should never fall on the backs of working people, but right now that is the reality in our state, it doesn’t need to be this way,” said Salazar.

For future coverage of the End Predatory Court Fees Act, head to BrooklynPaper.com.