Noting that "in recent years, non-driving related offenses accounted for the majority of license suspensions in New Jersey," law professors from Seton Hall's Center for Social Justice called on lawmakers and judges to understand that "To End Criminalization of Poverty, NJ Cannot Stop with Bail Reform."
The feature Op-ed was written by Law Professors Lori Outzs Borgen, Jenny-Brooke Condon and Esere Onaodowan – all faculty of the Center for Social Justice who work with students to help their clients overcome civil legal barriers to reintegration.
The law professors write:
New Jersey is a proven leader in criminal justice reform. Prior to the groundbreaking Criminal Justice Reform Act in 2017, thousands of poor individuals languished in county jails awaiting trial—on average, for nearly a year—because they could not afford bail. Last month, the Third Circuit upheld New Jersey's bold move away from monetary bail to a risk-based system for detention, thereby preserving the basic principle of equal justice that how much money a person has should not determine whether he or she is incarcerated.
But the State's work is not done to eliminate the criminalization of poverty in New Jersey. Continuing its leadership on this issue, New Jersey should now turn to reforming the laws that impose a cascade of court fines and permit the suspension of hundreds of thousands of driver's licenses each year simply because of residents' inability to pay justice-related debt.
According to the Motor Vehicle Commission, in recent years, non-driving related offenses accounted for the majority of license suspensions in New Jersey. From 2007-2012, more than 70 percent of license suspensions were due to non-payment of court fees, traffic fines and insurance surcharges.
Until recently, too many have ignored the devastating impact of this system on low-income communities. A new report from the New Jersey Supreme Court Committee on Municipal Court Operations, Fines, and Fees is a critical call to action.
The Report recommends a wide range of reforms to New Jersey's municipal courts, where thousands go each day to address parking tickets, disorderly persons charges and other violations. In particular, the Committee expressed "profound concern" about the "never-ending imposition of mandatory financial obligations upon defendants that extend beyond the fine that is associated with the violation."
We have seen this punitive cycle of monetary penalties and court involvement play out in our own clients' lives. Even minor municipal court violations often compound into thousands of dollars of debt and invariably lead to license suspension. A recent client of the Center for Social Justice, a disabled veteran, incurred over $15,000 in court-ordered debt arising from traffic fines and unpaid parking tickets, resulting in the suspension of his license. For a decade, our client, who cares for his sick wife, tried unsuccessfully to pay his debt and restore his driving privileges.
For him and so many others, the loss of a driver's license stood as a further barrier to paying his court debt and overcoming poverty. Driving is often the only means of transportation to jobs, education, workforce training, medical appointments and childcare. Depriving someone of the means to maintain employment and meet the demands of daily life in order to coerce compliance with court-related debt simply does not work. It only further drives the cycle of poverty, and even incarceration.
Read more at the New Jersey Law Journal