Some constitutional questions are complicated, but on one point, the founders were clear and simple. “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed,” reads the Eighth Amendment.
But far too many states, counties, cities and court systems — including here in New York — impose excessive fines every day, squeezing citizens with a web of costly fees and fines that reduce the search for justice to a hunt for cash.
City Controller Scott Stringer has published a report, “Fees, Fines and Fairness,” that analyzes the dozens of at least 30 mandatory and hidden charges that hit New Yorkers who have been convicted of violations ranging from serious felonies to petty misdemeanors.
“The criminal justice system is an unfair maze; there’s two standards of justice,” Stringer recently said on NY1 News. “But if you go in poor, according to my report, you’re coming out poorer.”
In 2017, according to Stringer, the New York City Criminal and Supreme Courts imposed more than 450,000 fees and fines, worth close to $100 million in legal financial obligations.
Well over 90% of criminal cases end in a guilty plea. Virtually everybody pleads, meaning pretty much everybody gets hit with a battery of fees — and under state law, these charges can’t be waived by the judge or anybody else, even if the defendant is destitute or homeless.
Plead guilty to a misdemeanor and you owe $175, or $300 for a felony. There’s also a $25 Crime Victim Assistance fee (it used to be $2), and a $50 DNA databank fee.
Along with these ever-rising fees come punitive fines — a different category piled on top of the base fees — which can range from $250 for disorderly conduct to as high as $100,000 for felonies. Stringer estimates New York hits people up for $56 million in fines in 2017, an average of $437 per offender.
But what if people don’t have $175 or $437 to pay? This is where New York, like many states, goes beyond being tough, and turns almost insanely vindictive.
Efforts to collect criminal justice fees and fines pursue people into prison: Money gets debited from the meager commissary accounts prisoners use to buy snack food and toiletries.
Even after release from jail and prison, the court system hits defendants with civil judgments, ruining their credit and driving them toward bankruptcy. In 2017 alone, according to Stringer: “the city’s criminal courts issued more than 103,000 civil judgments for failure to pay court fees and fines, damaging the financial futures of those affected. In 11,200 cases, courts issued a warrant for nonpayment, and in 161 cases, New York City defendants were ordered to be immediately incarcerated for nonpayment.”
This isn’t supposed to be happening, according to the Supreme Court. In the 1983 case of Bearden vs. Georgia, a burglar named Danny Bearden, who’d broken into a trailer in Tunnel Hill, Ga., was sentenced to probation and ordered to pay a fine of $500 and restitution of $250. Bearden — who had a ninth-grade education and was illiterate — paid $200 of the amount owed, but stopped making payments after getting laid off from his job. The state promptly revoked his probation and put Bearden in jail.
The high court ruled that Georgia moved too quickly, and should have inquired about whether Bearden had truly sought to come up with the money. Federal and local judges are now prohibited from jailing people if they determine someone can’t pay — and, most importantly, courts are supposed to inquire about a defendant’s ability to pay.
This year, a conservative Supreme Court unanimously held that the Constitution’s prohibition on excessive fines also applies to state and local governments.
New York needs to bring our fees and fines system in line with the Constitution. The amounts charged need to be lowered, and made discretionary. And judges need to hold Bearden hearings before imposing fines, fees or judgments.
New York can’t keep balancing our budgets on the backs of the state’s poorest families, who can least afford the burden.
Louis is political anchor of NY1 News