Last week, State Senator Julia Salazar and Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou introduced the End Predatory Court Fees Act, which would also require judges to look at a person’s financial circumstances before imposing a fine.
Advocates are hoping it will pass alongside another bill that would eliminate parole and probation fees.
“These fees and surcharges are essentially another way of unfairly making poor people shoulder financial burdens that ought to be the responsibility of those with significant wealth,” Salazar said. “It is time to eliminate them, as there should not be a price on justice.”
According to lawmakers, New York currently imposes automatic court fees on every conviction and traffic ticket. Advocates say those fees disproportionately impact Black and Latino communities and effectively criminalize poverty.
Those who cannot afford to pay off those fines risk a civil judgement, arrest warrant or even a jail sentence.
In a statement, Niou said the current criminal justice system is deeply flawed, perpetuates racial bias and predominantly affects communities of color.
“Unpaid fees and surcharges can be racked up while folks are in prison, where there is little ability to pay,” she said. “It can then affect an individual’s credit and ability to secure housing, which increases recidivism and further prevents incarcerated individuals from returning to society.”
The End Predatory Court Fees Act would also end the garnishment of commissary accounts. According to advocates, New York garnishes up to 80 percent of the money that loved ones deposit in commissary accounts, which are often used for food, hygiene and communication with the outside.
People on parole and probation are also charged a monthly fee, advocates said, which presents a barrier to reentry when incarcerated people are coming home and trying to reestablish their lives.
Jesse Johnston of the Center for Community Alternatives (CCA) called garnishing commissary accounts due to court fees “inhumane.” He said it forces people to make “dehumanizing choices” between deodorant and shampoo, or soap and toothpaste.
“You are forced to choose between your health, your cleanliness, your physical and mental well being,” Johnston said. “New York can and must change these laws to respect the dignity of all people.”
Robin DelPiore, a CCA member whose son is a diabetic and incarcerated in a state prison, said when his sugar levels are out of normal range, he needs emergency access to food. As a result, DelPiore sends him commissary money. But she said that money is garnished to pay state fees.
“I send him this money to make sure he stays alive, and they are taking that peace of mind away from me,” she said. “The money they garnish is not coming from my son’s pocket, it’s coming from my pocket.”