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NYC Lawyers Call For End of Criminal Court Fees

Lawyers in New York City are calling on state lawmakers to do away with charging court costs to individuals who are convicted of committing a crime, saying the policy unfairly harms low-income individuals.

A number of reports have been published criticizing the process of arresting and imprisoning individuals who have unpaid court debts, calling the process a modern day debtor’s prison.

The mandatory surcharges placed on individuals convicted of crimes added $5.2 million to the state’s coffers in New York in 2016, the last year for which data is available. Not paying the fines, which range from $95 to $300 for a felony, can incur a bench warrant and put the individual back in jail if a payment is not made.

“Mandatory surcharges and fees are a fundamentally unfair burden often directly at odds with the aims of the criminal justice system — they tend to make re-entry more difficult and recidivism more likely, particularly for those whose crimes stem from poverty,” lawyers for the New York City Bar Association wrote in their report, which was published last week. Eighty-four percent of the fees stem from convictions of non-violent felonies, such as drug possession, driving with a suspended license, or not paying to ride the subway. Lawyers called these types of offenses “quality of life offenses” which often stem from not having enough money in the first place.

“The mandatory surcharges and fees function as a regressive tax most frequently imposed upon those least able to pay, which causes harm wholly disproportionate to the small effect on the state budget it supports,” the report said.

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