N.J.’s top cop and judge agree: Stop jailing people for minor fines | Editorial

Published: Jun. 06, 2022

The chief justice of New Jersey’s Supreme Court, Stuart Rabner, has been on a years-long campaign to stop using our jails to punish people for being poor; what amounts to a debtor’s prison.

He started by making our state a national model for bail reform, locking up dangerous people awaiting trial but releasing those stuck behind bars because they can’t afford to pay their way out.

Now he’s seeking to reform our municipal court system for lower-level offenses, which brings us to the new policy announced last week for all New Jersey cops and courts: You can no longer arrest people for minor fines like an unpaid parking ticket or hold them in jail because they can’t pay.

A 2018 report on our municipal court system commissioned by the chief justice found towns were using their local courts like a virtual ATM: Passing ordinances against petty crimes, then punishing people with hefty fines – and jail time if they couldn’t afford them.

This is a commonsense reform, but that doesn’t lessen its importance, as Alexander Shalom of New Jersey’s American Civil Liberties Union points out – for years, cops have been arresting hundreds of thousands of people in our state for minor stuff like this. So kudos to Rabner, other leaders of judiciary and the office of acting Attorney General Matt Platkin for getting this done.

Yes, in an ideal world, no one would ever drive above the speed limit, break any local ordinance against littering or smoking or fail to pay the fine. But that’s not where we live, is it?

Now imagine being in the car with your kid when a cop pulls you over for a busted tail light, then arrests you, saying you have to come away in handcuffs because of some old ticket for a couple hundred bucks that you might not even remember.

As we noted in 2018, because a 20-year-old college kid in Burlington Township couldn’t pay a $239 ticket for flicking a cigarette out his car window, he was arrested on the spot. That’s bad enough for someone who can come up with the money he owes, but those who can’t might be stuck in jail for days or a week, even lose their jobs. They could wind up owing hundreds of dollars more for late fees and court costs.

And studies show enforcement disproportionately targets people of color – with sometimes tragic results, as we’ve seen across the country. Sandra Bland, a Black 28-year-old, had an outstanding warrant for unpaid traffic tickets when she was pulled over for failure to signal a lane change, needlessly arrested and committed suicide in jail.

New Jersey’s courts have instituted some reforms in recent years: Certain assignment judges overseeing our municipal courts have set limits on the detention of petty offenders in their vicinages, and the judiciary has moved to cap court fees and toss out more than a million old, unpaid tickets on minor matters. Great.

But this is the first uniform, statewide policy to end the practice of arresting people on unpaid fines, and to ensure that the courts release them. It’s important to note that under the acting AG’s new directive, police can still arrest someone they think is trying to evade unpaid tickets for low-level stuff, if it becomes a serial problem. They just can’t do so in the very first encounter.

Instead, they’ll simply warn people that they must appear in court. Most of the time, that’s enough. “When we see these very low-level incidents turn horrible and lead to very tragic results, that’s not a good result for police either,” as Shalom points out.

Which is why this reform also has the support of law enforcement groups, like the state association of police chiefs and the state’s largest police unions. Top brass agree with Rabner and the ACLU: We need the cops to fight serious crimes like rape and robbery, not to act as low-level debt collectors.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-06-07 03:20:57 -0700