Report details urgent need for reform of NJ’s municipal court system

The new report on New Jersey’s municipal courts wouldn’t surprise many people who’ve gotten ticketed and ended up before the judge somewhere in Jersey. They often tell similar stories about how fines and fees piled up, and how they felt set up.

“It feels like a mob mentality,” said Asbury Park resident Sam Strasser. “Like they’re trying to get the most out of us.”

“Set your watch by when they’re going to look to make their revenue through fines and traffic violations,” said Len Carella from Robbinsville.

“There are municipal officials out there, there are municipal judges out there, who freely brag about how much money they generate,” said state Sen. Declan O’Scanlon.

O’Scanlon hailed the report commissioned by New Jersey’s Supreme Court that stated municipal court practices “… at times have more to do with generating revenue than the fair administration of justice.” It noted municipal courts processed 6 million cases and raked in $400 million just last year, with more than half of that money going to the municipalities.

“And municipalities have come to rely on this revenue to balance their budgets. That’s not what it’s there for,” O’Scanlon said.

“I think the overarching sentiment in this report is that fairness to litigants, not a quest for revenue, ought to be the driving principle of our municipal court system,” Former Supreme Court Justice Peter Verniero said. “In my opinion, it represents probably one of the most comprehensive set of reforms we have seen in this area in memory.”

Verniero noted that the report cited examples where judges tacked on court costs and mandated state surcharges, or used bench warrants and license suspensions, all of which jacked up final costs to litigants. In one example a $130 fine for failure to get a car inspected in the end topped $1,500 after the driver’s license was suspended for nonpayment. He didn’t have the money, then got caught driving to work without a license.

“And because of the system and the built-in penalty enhancements, that small amount turns into a quite large amount or could actually lead to imprisonment, without any determination of the litigant’s ability to pay,” Verniero said.

“It’s certainly a social justice issue. The people most victimized by these policies are the poor and the working middle class, who are paycheck-to-paycheck,” added O’Scanlon.

Recommended reforms include basing fines on fairness and ability to pay, not revenues generated; appointing and evaluating judges by objective standards; setting guidelines to prevent overuse of contempt sanctions and license suspensions; limiting the issuance of bench warrants to serious offenses; and merging some of New Jersey’s 515 municipal courts.

Both Gov. Phil Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney welcomed the report, and promised to review it, but New Jersey’s League of Municipalities disagrees with the report’s premise and blames state surcharges for exorbitant fines and urges extensive discussion before any changes are made to the municipal court system.

“As a system, it’s important that it be carefully and really fairly reviewed in all its parts and pieces, so characterizing the municipal courts as ATMs is both unfair and really not reflective of reality,” said Michael Darcy, executive director of the League of Municipalities.

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner has already issued an order that caps certain fines municipal judges can impose. The Judiciary is also looking for comments from the public. It’s likely to get an earful.

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