Municipal Courts too Quick to Levy Fines and Need Major Reforms — Report

New Jersey’s 515 municipal courts collected over $400 million last year. New report concludes system is due for an overhaul that prioritizes impartial justice over makign money

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Judge & Gavel
The New Jersey Supreme Court is recommending significant changes in the state’s municipal courts to ensure their fairness and independence that will likely result in lower penalties for those that appear before municipal judges but will impact municipal budgets. Courts were ordered yesterday to begin implementing one change: lower fines for some penalties.

The Supreme Court document, called The Report of the Supreme Court Committee on Municipal Court Operations, Fines, and Fees, seeks to restructure a system that many have complained prioritizes generating revenues over carrying out impartial justice. The problem has a serious impact on the indigent, as defendants originally cited for something as minor as littering can end up with jail time due to the imposition of multiple fees and fines. Also, given that municipal judges are politically appointed, they may fear they will lose their jobs if they don’t levy enough fees to satisfy local officials.

Municipal courts in New Jersey collected more than $400 million last year, retaining more than half that for local budgets.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner charged a special committee, formed 16 months ago, with examining complaints about the municipal courts. The committee found “a number of significant concerns where aggressive reform is needed.” Its report, which spans 74 pages but balloons to more than 1,300 with appendices, recommends 49 reforms that follow eight principles, including that “The Municipal Courts, as part of the Judiciary, are separate from the Legislative and Executive branches and are not a revenue-generating arm of the government.”

Putting cap on fines

Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner
In an order issued in conjunction with the recommendations, Rabner placed caps on both the amount and number of fines municipal judges can impose on a person for failure to appear and for failure to pay fines. Currently, municipal judges have full discretion in imposing financial sanctions. The new order, which takes effect September 1, sets maximum caps for failure to appear in court ranging from $25 for parking violations to $100 for disorderly persons and other serious municipal offenses and limits the number of sanctions to one per case. It also caps the maximum fine for failure to pay court-ordered fees at $50, but a person who is unable to pay his fees can argue that to avoid an additional failure to pay monetary penalty.

Advocates praised the report and Rabner’s order as important initial steps toward making the municipal court system fairer.

“We know municipal court abuses have disproportionately affected people with low incomes and people of color,” said Jeanne LoCicero, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, adding these courts can “prioritize revenue over justice.” Because municipal officials have a lot of control over local courts — mayors and councils appoint the judges to three-year terms — “there are political pressures involved and a person can have widely different experiences from municipality to municipality.”

Patricia McKernan, the chief operating officer of Volunteers of America Delaware Valley who recently researched the role of money in municipal courts and issues related to criminal justice debt as part of her work on her doctorate in social work, praised the report’s recommendations. “I think it is a step in the right direction to see the Supreme Court making these kinds of changes,” she said. “They are long overdue.”

This is not the first time that issues involving municipal courts have come to light. They were initially brought up as part of a 2014 review by the New Jersey Bar Association of judicial independence. Last September, the bar’s Subcommittee on Judicial Independence in the Municipal Courts released a report covering similar ground to that of the judiciary report released yesterday.

Municipal budgetary pressures

“The pressures of budgetary needs of the municipality and the local governing body, and the overall need for revenue to be generated along with a pervasive bias towards the police, cannot continue to be the focus of the municipal courts and of judicial appointments in the municipal court,” the NJBA report noted.

Not all agreed with the criticism. In a statement, the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, defended the work of municipal court personnel and noted that some of the money from fees and fines goes to support the state court system, as well. “Municipal judges, prosecutors, public defenders and court administrators take their offices seriously and exercise their duties ethically and responsibly. All undergo training before taking office. All work under the jurisdiction and are audited by of the Administrative Office of the Courts … Further we hope all recognize the value local elected officials place on the efficient and effective administration of justice at the local level and the support — financial and otherwise — provided to the State Judiciary.”

The intertwining of justice with revenues is not a problem unique to New Jersey. In 2015, as a result of the shooting death of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri by a white police officer, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a report that found the issuance of excessive fines, the use of arrest warrants to compel people to pay court-imposed fees and the jailing of people who missed payments.

When a person winds up in court, it’s most likely to be in municipal court. New Jersey’s 515 municipal courts — some towns share a court or have formed joint courts — handle traffic offenses, disorderly persons and petty disorderly persons offenses, and violations of municipal ordinances. They also handle instances of domestic violence and some housing matters. This is why it is critically important that these courts be fair, Rabner said in a statement.

Rabner: They must adhere to ‘Judiciary’s high standards’

“It is often said that municipal courts, which handle millions of cases every year, are the face of the Judiciary,” he said. “We must make sure that they adhere to the Judiciary’s high standards of integrity, independence, and fairness. As part of that effort, courts are responsible to see that justice is carried out without regard to any outside pressures.”

Rabner had written a letter to all judges, both municipal and in the Superior Court, last April that anticipated the report released yesterday. In it, he discussed “disturbing practices” of two municipal court judges. In one case, a judge had diverted fines in a way that gave more money to the municipalities where he served. The other was a judge who sentenced a man to five days in jail for the inability to pay a $239 fine for littering.

“The imposition of punishment should in no way be linked to a town’s need for revenue,” Rabner wrote. “And defendants may not be jailed because they are too poor to pay court-ordered financial obligations.”

‘Devastating to individuals and families’

The major concerns voiced by the report are over three “excessive” practices:

  • The imposition of fines beyond those associated with the original violation. These “ultimately have little to do with the fair administration of justice” and can start “an ongoing cycle of court involvement for defendants with limited resources.”
  • The use of bench warrants and license suspensions “as collection mechanisms.” Currently 2.5 million bench warrants for failure to appear in court and failure to pay fees are outstanding, with some dating back to the mid-1980s. These, too, can “be devastating to individuals and families.”
  • The use of discretionary contempt assessments, with all amounts collected going to municipalities. From 2015 through 2017, $22 million in contempt fines were levied. Sometimes, these assessments “have more to do with generating revenue than the fair administration of justice.”
  • Fines that ‘have little to do’ with justice

    “The committee was deeply concerned about what can be a never-ending imposition of mandatory financial obligations that have little to do with the fair administration of justice,” said Atlantic County Assignment Judge Julio Mendez, who chaired the committee. “They can be financially overwhelming, can disproportionately impact the poor, and often become the starting point for an ongoing cycle of court involvement for individuals with limited resources.”

    The report recommends that the judiciary begin monitoring the imposition of fines for contempt of court — typically failing to obey the court or being disrespectful in court — to ensure that such fines are justified. It also suggested the development of sentencing guidelines for discretionary penalties and the mandatory scheduling of an ability-to-pay hearing upon a defendant’s nonpayment of fines. (Scroll to the end of this story for a table that shows Contempt of Court Assessments in all 21 counties.)

    Another set of suggestions, some of which would require legislative approval, seek to improve judicial independence. Among these are the creation of transparent and impartial appointment and reappointment processes for judges, increasing judges’ terms to five years.

    “Establishing a uniform and transparent judicial appointment process will elevate the experience of the public, who can come to court to have their case resolved knowing local politics and financial pressures are not driving the judicial process,” said John E. Keefe Jr., president of the state bar, in support of the judicial recommendations and the entire report.

    Controversial recommendation

    A final, and likely very controversial recommendation, is for the mandatory consolidation of courts, particularly of smaller courts, which may meet only once or twice a month and have fewer than 1,000 filings a year.

    The report also calls for the creation of a working group of members of all three branches of government to implement the reforms and tackle other relevant issues.

    So far, officials have signaled a willingness to work on court reform.

    “Governor Murphy applauds the New Jersey Supreme Court’s willingness to take a hard look at our municipal court system and propose reforms with the goal of making the system fairer for all,” said Murphy spokesman Dan Bryan. “As a candidate, the Governor noted the need to ensure that municipalities do not excessively rely on municipal fines, which can disproportionately impact poorer residents.”

    A spokesman for the Senate Democrats agreed. “This is a significant report with findings and recommendations that we are taking seriously,” said Richard McGrath. “The principles of justice and fairness that we followed in making the historic reforms to the bail system that became a national model will guide us in making any reforms to municipal courts. The emphasis of the legal process should be on the fair administration of justice that does not punish anyone unfairly simply because they do not have the ability to pay.”

    ‘Policing for profit’

    The Republicans support the report as well. Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth), offered to sponsor several of the recommendations.

    Sen. Declan O'Scanlon (R-Monmouth)
    “Policing for profit has become the norm for too many municipalities. It has become so accepted that many local officials don’t believe they’re doing anything wrong,” he said. “When considering the hiring of judges there is open discussion of how aggressive candidates will be in generating revenue. That perverts our justice system and damages peoples’ faith and trust in our police … Our overarching goal should be the greatest amount of compliance and safety with the LEAST amount of punishment.”

    O’Scanlon predicted at least some of the reforms will be unpopular with municipal officials and indeed the municipalities’ representative on the court committee did not support it.

    The league said that while it commends the work of the committee, “Unfortunately, the report draws many of its conclusions based on anecdotal accounts, including those from other states and the recommendations do not address the impact of state-imposed mandates and requirements.” It said that of the $400 million in fees collected in 2017 “nearly half these funds are a direct result of State surcharges to fund state priorities. While the report itself notes the negative impact of these State mandated charges on indigent defendants, not one of the Committee’s recommendations aim to address this burden.”

    Michael Cerra, the league’s assistant executive director, noted that municipalities pay all the costs of local courts. “It comes from the municipal budget,” he said. “Court fees are used to offset the costs but they don’t come close to covering all costs. You couldn’t run a municipal court off of court fees alone.”

    On the other hand, neither LoCicero nor McKernan believe the recommendations go far enough. For instance, McKernan said one of the challenges many people face is getting legal representation and the report does nothing to address that.

    “Folks who don’t have the resources to hire an attorney are forced to make an application and pay a fee for a public defender. That can be problematic for them,” McKernan said, adding the application fee can be as high as $200.

    The judiciary is seeking public comment on its report through September 17.

    Contempt of Court Assessments

    County All filings Contempt cases Percent contempt Contempt fines Average fine per case
    ATLANTIC 431,904 13,876 3.2 $820,128 $59.10
    BERGEN ,844,873 37,912 2.1 $1,195,063 $31.52
    BURLINGTON 615,522 27,995 4.5 $3,084,351 $110.18
    CAMDEN 1,025,586 16,175 1.6 $2,370,281 $146.54
    CAPE MAY 228,856 3,403 1.5 $83,976 $24.68
    CUMBERLAND 218,832 3,805 1.7 $304,903 $80.13
    ESSEX 2,815,726 30,879 1.1 $1,782,119 $57.71
    GLOUCESTER 388,380 13,563 3.5 $967,425 $71.33
    HUDSON 3,192,739 35,061 1.1 $862,449 $24.60
    HUNTERDON 171,704 1,311 0.8 $128,025 $97.65
    MERCER 617,006 17,535 2.8 $1,648,769 $94.03
    MIDDLESEX 1,236,913 31,159 2.5 $2,230,988 $71.60
    MONMOUTH 1,025,416 32,497 3.2 $2,640,803 $81.26
    MORRIS 622,471 13,558 2.2 $1,203,320 $88.75
    OCEAN 537,752 6,178 1.1 $590,347 $95.56
    PASSAIC 995,090 23,123 2.3 $771,794 $33.38
    SALEM 78,050 1,598 2.0 $93,265 $58.36
    SOMERSET 340,707 3,041 0.9 $199,461 $65.59
    SUSSEX 94,414 2,284 2.4 $160,456 $70.25
    UNION 1,151,302 18,828 1.6 $1,044,450 $55.47
    WARREN 135,324 3,169 2.3 $139,932 $44.16
    NEW JERSEY 12,048,917 336,950 2.8 $22,322,304 $66.25

    Source: Report of the Supreme Court Committee on Municipal Court Operations, Fines, and Fees