New Jersey Board Finds Suspending Drivers’ Licenses Because of Failure to Pay Court Fines Doesn’t Work
by Dale Chappell
Reaching a conclusion that most people already knew, the New Jersey Judicial Commission issued a report finding that suspending someone’s driver’s license when they fail to pay a court fine does not work, and it makes it even harder to pay the fine.
The report faults the court system for not properly assessing a person’s ability to pay a fine, but also notes that prosecutors share in the blame for unnecessarily piling on extra charges to induce guilty pleas.
Court fees added on top of small, fine-only offenses netted New Jersey courts $400 million in revenue in 2017, which was split between the courts and local government officials. This is because a host of fees jack up the fine for the offense to an impossible amount to pay for some people.
For example, a person found guilty of being a “disorderly person” is charged fees of $250 for the Computer Crime Prevention fund, $50 for the Victims of Crime Compensation Office fund, and $75 for the Safe Neighborhoods Services Fund. Throw in a charge for possessing drug paraphernalia, and the cost shoots up another $500 for the Drug Enforcement and Demand Reduction Fund.
The chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court reminded municipal judges in April 2018 that it is illegal to jail people for failure to pay a court fine. The justice pointed to a municipal judge who opened the 2014 court session by announcing that any fines imposed were due that day and that failure to pay the fine would result in a jail sentence. The judge in question then made good on that promise by putting a person in jail for five days for being unable to pay a $239 fine.
While the court system is not supposed to be a profit-driven system, courts and local governments feel this cash cow should continue as business as usual. Some say this turns the criminal justice system into a revenue generator funded by those who can least afford it and are calling on the courts and prosecutors to stop gouging the public with such fines and fees.
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