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Revamp of Municipal Courts Moves Ahead, Legislation in the Pipeline

Chief Justice pushes reforms, lawmaker offers legislatives fixes after report said local courts should focus more on justice than on money

Gavel with money sign
Credit: Pixabay

A move is underway to create a fairer and more independent municipal court system, based on recommendations by the state’s Supreme Court. A recent report, requested by the Supreme Court, had many suggestions, a major one of which is to end the practice of focusing on fees rather than justice.

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner has empaneled a committee to work on putting in place at least some of the report’s 49 suggestions, which called for reforms to ensure local justice is not driven by financial considerations. Critics have charged that decisions in municipal court can be driven by the desire to generate revenue, rather than what is most appropriate given the offense.

Another judicial panel has scheduled hearings on a court initiative to discharge old, minor unresolved offenses.

Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth) has also introduced the first legislation inspired by the report, with three measures designed to keep financial incentives out of municipal courts. “It’s a start in what should be an interesting and beneficial reform,” O’Scanlon said. “Our justice system should just be about justice.”

$400 million collected in fines last year

Last July, the Supreme Court Committee on Municipal Court Operations, Fines, and Fees issued a report that urged numerous reforms to deal with the problem in at least some local courts of an emphasis on generating revenue through fines. Municipal courts collected more than $400 million last year and kept more than half that for local budgets. Since municipal judges are politically appointed, they may fear they will lose their jobs if they don’t levy enough penalties to satisfy local officials. And defendants originally cited for something as minor as littering can end up with jail time due to the imposition of multiple fees and fines.

The legislation introduced last week by O’Scanlon would begin to address some of the issues and would codify three of the report’s specific recommendations:

  • S-3059 would allow defendants to earn credit toward fines if they complete court-imposed drug or alcohol treatment, thus preventing them from possibly winding up in jail for nonpayment of fees;

  • S-3060 would increase the term of municipal court judges from three years to five, which could lift some of the political pressure judges may face to bring more revenue in by levying fines;

  • SR-108 urges the state Supreme Court to establish a process for evaluating municipal judges that would include surveying lawyers who appear before a judge. The state currently has no uniform evaluation system for municipal judges.

o'scanlon
Sen. Declan O'Scanlon (R-Monmouth)

“It really is a huge temptation and incentive for municipal governments to use police and the justice system as a revenue generating operation, rather than focusing on safety and justice,” O’Scanlon said. “Any one of us could be a victim of that. A ton of people have gotten caught up in the system. We need to refocus the justice system on justice and safety.”

At the same time, reform efforts are moving within the judiciary.

Rabner recently named a 38-member committee whose goal is to implement the report’s recommended reforms. This committee, which includes representatives of law enforcement, the public defender’s office, prosecutors, nonprofit organizations, civil rights groups, bar associations, the Legislature and local government, is to begin meeting soon.

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

Court consolidation in offing?

Several of the report’s specific recommendations deal with fines. It calls on the judiciary to begin monitoring the imposition of penalties for contempt of court — typically failing to obey the court or being disrespectful in court — to ensure that such fines are justified. It also suggests 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.

Likely the most controversial recommendation is the one that calls 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 judiciary announced last week the scheduling of three hearings to consider the dismissal of old, unresolved municipal court cases involving minor offenses. Rabner issued an order 10 weeks ago establishing a three-judge panel to consider the dismissal of more than 787,000 cases that have remained open for 15 years or more without being prosecuted. Those matters include parking violations, minor motor vehicle offenses and local ordinance violations.

The panel will listen to testimony, generally, on why those older minor municipal court complaints should not be dismissed. Individual cases will not be discussed. Members of the public, advocates, mayors, municipal attorneys and prosecutors are invited to speak. The judiciary is asking everyone who wants to address the panel to submit a request and written comments. Details on how to submit a request, and more information about the hearings, are available from the judiciary website.

These actions show the seriousness of the judiciary and others to remake the municipal court system into one that is fairer. Immediately on the release of the report, Rabner took an initial step and ordered the courts to lower fines for some penalties.

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