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NYC Comptroller Scott M. Stringer: Abolish Mandatory Surcharges and Forgive Outstanding Court Debt to End Criminalization of Poverty within the Justice System

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Today, New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer proposed a comprehensive roadmap to tackle the next frontier in decarceration: a maze of onerous mandatory surcharges and service fees, which represents an all-but-hidden secondary form of punishment for those involved in the justice system, inhibits re-entry for formerly incarcerated individuals, foments recidivism, and burdens families for years beyond a formal prison term. In a new report, “Fees, Fines and Fairness: How Monetary Charges Drive Inequity in the New York City Criminal Justice System,” Comptroller Stringer tracks the vast landscape of fees and other financial obligations throughout the pre-trial, sentencing, post-trial and post-incarceration process – detailing how a single encounter with the criminal justice system can impose crushing and lasting costs on families of justice-involved individuals, plunging New Yorkers into an unrelenting cycle of punitive poverty.

Comptroller Stringer’s analysis found that in 2017 alone, New York City Criminal and Supreme Court imposed 139,000 mandatory surcharges, totaling $20 million. The Comptroller’s wide-ranging analysis reveals the harsh collateral consequences of failing to pay at each stage of criminal justice involvement, finding that in 2017, more than 100,000 civil judgments and 11,000 warrants were issued for failure to pay criminal court debt, largely impacting communities of color and low-income New Yorkers, harming financial records and job opportunities, while keeping tens of thousands of New Yorkers embroiled in the justice system. Even after finishing a jail or prison sentence, court-imposed financial obligations can remain – roughly 45 percent of State parolees leave prison with outstanding court debt.

In the new report, Comptroller Stringer proposed a comprehensive strategy to end the criminalization of poverty within New York’s justice system, calling for reforms that would:

  • Totally eliminate mandatory surcharges;
  • Forgive outstanding court debt;
  • End driver’s license suspension for unpaid fines;
  • End parole and probation supervision fees; and
  • Abolish the practice of incarceration for unpaid court debts once and for all.

“Our criminal justice system continues to criminalize poverty at great cost to our communities and the cause of public safety. Even the most minor encounters with the criminal justice system can come with a hefty price tag – and eventually lead to dire consequences for New Yorkers, their families and friends. Our report exposes how the criminal justice system imposes a dizzying array of fees and financial obligations that systemically extract wealth from low-income communities and communities of color. For too many New Yorkers, our criminal justice system foments an unrelenting cycle of poverty and punishment. It’s time for fundamental, transformational change,” said New York Comptroller Scott M. Stringer. “We have to go beyond bail reform to fully untangle the system of punitive poverty which fuels our mass incarceration crisis. Any comprehensive agenda to decarcerate New York City must dismantle the cycle of onerous fees and surcharges that keep New Yorkers, their families, and communities locked up in a spiral of debt. These costs aren’t just an issue of dollars and cents – they’re an issue of right and wrong. And reform is about whether we, as a society, truly believe in second chances. Let’s seize this moment, and end the criminalization of poverty in New York, once and for all.”

Comptroller Stringer’s report found:

Mandatory Administrative Surcharges are Overly Punitive and Burdensome

  • In 2017, New York City Criminal and Supreme Court imposed 139,000 mandatory surcharges, totaling $20 million in costs.
  • In the same year, the City’s criminal courts issued more than 103,000 civil judgments for failure to pay court fees and fines, damaging the financial futures of those affected. In 11,200 cases, courts issued a warrant for nonpayment, and in 161 cases, New York City defendants were ordered to be immediately incarcerated for nonpayment.
  • Excluding the City’s Supreme Court, where felony cases are handled, the New York City Criminal Court collected about $5.6 million in mandatory surcharges in 2017, despite imposing more than $15 million. About 60 percent of revenue collected by the courts were from non-criminal violations and non-DUI traffic offenses.

Jail and Prison Policies Impose Massive Financial Burden on Vulnerable Families

  • Friends and family of incarcerated individuals transferred more than $17.5 million into New York City jail accounts through 331,000 unique transactions in FY 2018. The cost of transferring funds into jail accounts put an additional $2 million burden on those communities in the form of service fees.
  • In the last decade, city jail commissary revenue has grown 7 percent despite a 36 percent drop in the city jail population. People in custody in New York City jails spent $13 million at jail commissaries in FY 2018.
  • In state prisons, the process for withdrawing leftover funds in jail accounts is subject to 15 different fees, including a $9.95 release card account closure fee.

Imposed Fees Exacerbate a Cycle of Debt, Tarnishing Opportunity and Fueling Recidivism

  • Roughly 45 percent of state parolees have outstanding court debt.
  • Outstanding fees and fines, in addition to parole supervision fees, can hobble a person’s reentry into their community and strain relationships with friends and family, who are often the ones to actually bear the financial obligations of those returning from prison.

Private Companies Continue to Reap Profits Throughout the Incarceration System

  • Parolees are expected to pay a supervision fee of $30 per month upon release, but the private company authorized to collect those fees further charges their own “convenience fees” ranging for $2 to $3 for every electronic transfer.
  • Incarcerated individuals in New York State prisons must pay $0.043 per minute for prison phone calls, and in addition to call fees, family and friends must pay a $3 fee for each credit card transaction.
  • A recent state contract further allows a private company to offer incarcerated individuals in state prisons “free tablets” that in turn sell online content for as much as $2.50 per song or $7.99 for a video game.

Stringer Calls for Higher Pay for Incarcerated Individuals

  • A “skilled” job in New York City jail, such as a cook or electrician, offers a wage of between $0.32 and $0.39 an hour. Unskilled jobs, including housekeeping, pay even less.
  • In FY 2018, the City’s Department of Correction (DOC) paid $5.9 million in wages to incarcerated individuals, the equivalent of about $660 per person per year.
  • State prisons offer similar wage rates. However, in addition to low pay, state prisons are authorized under state law to withhold up to $1 per week from wages “to help defray the cost of incarceration.”

In order to address the harms perpetuated by the current regime of mandatory fees, Comptroller Stringer proposed a series of policy recommendations, which would require action by the City and State:

  1. Break the cycle of debt and criminal justice involvement. New York State should eliminate mandatory surcharges and forgive outstanding court debt for these financial obligations. New York State should also end the practice of incarceration for unpaid court debts. Other recommendations include ending driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines and eliminating parole and probation supervision fees. State Senator Julia Salazar and Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou announced today forthcoming legislation to deliver this change.
  2. End or amend contracts that allow exorbitant fees. The City should take steps, through legislation and/or directly through contracts with companies that provide wire transfer services, to eliminate money transfer fees, which can be as high as $11.95 for one transaction. In addition, the State should follow New York City’s lead and eliminate charges for phone calls and other forms of communication.
  3. Ensure fines are not overly burdensome. Allow partial or full waivers for state fines based on ability to pay. New York City should also study City-imposed fines, including demographic and geographic collection patterns, on a regular basis to identify those that may be unreasonable, ineffective, and/or disproportionately imposed.
  4. Provide more transparency. New York State courts are required to report to the State Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) on the disposition and collection of mandatory surcharges, sex offender registration fees, DNA Databank fees, and Crime Victim Assistance fees. However, this data, if it is collected, is not publicly available. DCJS should make data publicly available on at least an annual basis.
  5. Review commissary policies and ensure all incarcerated individuals have access to basic goods. Persons under custody have a limited ability to earn wages while incarcerated and therefore depend heavily on family and friends to be able to purchase commissary items. New York State and City should review commissary policies and incarcerated individuals’ access to basic goods, both with or without outside support. Courts should be prohibited from garnishing commissary accounts to pay court-imposed surcharges.

“We took action in the state legislature this year to limit the harms of money bail, but there is more that we must do to address economic injustice within our criminal justice system. The new report from the Comptroller’s office reveals how various fines and surcharges continue to cause further harm to incarcerated New Yorkers, trapping people in cycles of recidivism and poverty. We’re introducing legislation to eliminate these draconian policies and mandatory fines in order to address inequity in our criminal justice system,” saidState Senator Julia Salazar.

“On the state level, we passed historic reforms to fix our broken criminal justice systems, such as the elimination of cash bail, implementation of speedy trial, and discovery reform. Our current criminal system is still deeply flawed, perpetuating racial bias, and predominantly affecting our communities of color,” said Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou. “Mandatory surcharges and fees are another flaw in our system and do not advance our criminal justice system in a meaningful way. These regressive taxes disproportionately affect the individuals who are least able to pay. We need to work towards a more equitable criminal justice system and that starts with eliminating these fees and surcharges. There should not be one criminal justice system for the rich and one criminal justice system for the poor. Thank you to Comptroller Scott Stringer for his leadership and I look forward to working with him and my colleagues on this issue.”

“Undoubtedly, inmates in our state face unjust fees and exorbitant costs which cripple them financially. I applaud NYC Comptroller Stringer for tackling an issue that is all too often ignored. There is a great need for humanity in all prisons, and as a public official, I feel it is my duty to make our prison system more the corrective system that we claim it to be, where we prepare those who are convicted to earn a second chance. While we take an inmate’s freedom we should not also insist on taking their basic human dignity,” said Assemblymember Nick Perry.

“This report from New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer sheds much needed light on the punitive scheme of fines and fees in the criminal legal system that plague our clients on a daily basis,” said Tina Luongo, Attorney-In-Charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society. “These costs perpetuate and exacerbate a cycle of debt and impede formerly incarcerated individuals’ ability to successfully rehabilitate and reenter society. City Hall and Albany must finally act on this problem that has manifested itself for decades and only continues to grow worse.”

“Court fines and fees only serve to punish an individual twice for the same crime. The courts do not even consider if people have the ability to pay. By now, we ALL know our justice system targets low-income communities and Black and brown New Yorkers. It is obvious that any mandatory surcharges attached to court procedures target and criminalize poverty and focus on raising money for more broken windows policing and keeping our communities oppressed,” said Victor Herrera, #CLOSErikers Campaign Leader at JustLeadershipUSA. “The State and local budgets should not be built on such fines and fees for revenue. This must end!”

“We thank the Comptroller’s office for taking a stand to fairly fund government by eliminating fees in the criminal justice system and ending counterproductive punishments including incarceration and driver’s license suspensions for legal debts,” said Katie Adamides, New York State Director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “We strongly support the recommendations in the Comptroller’s report, which would reduce the criminalization of low-income communities and communities of color.”

“We’ve paid bail for nearly 4,500 New Yorkers to-date who would otherwise be jailed pretrial because they cannot afford a few hundred dollars to purchase their freedom. As the largest community bail fund in the country, we’ve seen the impact of the criminalization of poverty on marginalized communities that are repeatedly targeted by the criminal legal system. Due to new statewide bail reform legislation, starting next year, many New Yorkers will no longer be jailed for the inability to afford bail. As we continue to fight for the complete elimination of money bail and pretrial detention, we must also fight to dismantle the myriad other ways through which the carceral system extracts wealth from low-income communities and communities of color,” saidPeter Goldberg, Executive Director of the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund. “We thank Comptroller Stringer for providing a comprehensive review of how fines and fees further entrench cycles of poverty for our most vulnerable neighbors.”

“The vast majority of people arrested in New York are Black and Latinx and living in poverty. For those who are already struggling, simply being arrested can be financially disastrous. Frankly, it is abhorrent that the state and city then try to squeeze them even further with surcharges, fees, and garnished commissary, with sanctions for non-payment ranging from damaged credit to re-incarceration. Exploitative contracts with corporations that impose high user fees for basic services like prison phone calls and commissary deposits only add to the financial burden. Comptroller Stringer’s landmark report should be a wake-up call to policymakers in all levels of government to take action and end this injustice,” said Lisa Schreibersdorf, Executive Director of Brooklyn Defender Services.

“This report lays bare the manner and amount of wealth extracted from low-income communities of color and sheds a light on a system that has flourished at their expense. We’re pleased to see Comptroller Stringer taking these issues seriously by supporting comprehensive reforms – like ending driver’s license suspensions for unpaid traffic tickets – that will make a difference for low-income New Yorkers and the communities targeted by the legal system every day,” saidJustine Olderman, Executive Director with The Bronx Defenders.

“Through our work, we see every day the way in which financial companies systematically exploit people and siphon wealth from communities of color,” said Andy Morrison, Campaigns Director at New Economy Project. “We applaud the Comptroller’s Office for bringing to light policies that perpetuate and exacerbate racial and economic injustice in New York City. Now it’s time for the City and State to take action to end them.”

“This vital, in-depth report by the Office of the Comptroller sheds light on practices that are inhumane and predatory. For far too long, private contractors have been permitted to extract a lengthy list of fees and surcharges from justice involved persons. Despite the fact that our jail and prison populations are decreasing, items like commissary fee revenues overall have increased over the past decade. Moreover, delinquencies and uncollected late fees from formerly incarcerated persons are technical grounds for arrest and remand back to prison. Unpaid fees and surcharges can create an overwhelming anxiety factor for justice involved persons who are struggling to surmount the challenges of reentry. The bottom line is that the City of New York could take a more humane approach and absorb these costs within its own operating budget,” Rob DeLeon, Associate Vice President of Programs at The Fortune Society.

“For many of the young people and families that exalt serves, the burden of additional fees and fines imposed on them by the justice system is the shackle that does not allow them to access and pursue freedom. This burden of fines and fees overwhelmingly contributes to the relentless cycle of poverty for those who have been incarcerated. We are glad that the Comptroller’s office has examined the flawed court processing structures that are in place, and exalt supports the removal of fees and fines associated with incarceration,” said Gisele Castro, Executive Director of Exalt Youth.

“This groundbreaking report confirms that mandatory fines and fees harm not only those involved in New York’s criminal justice system, but their friends, family, and neighbors as well. Formerly incarcerated individuals already struggle to successfully reintegrate into their communities, and these fees simply exacerbate the problem. As a provider of reentry services across the state, CCA has witnessed the damage caused by these unnecessary debts, particularly when they lead to driver’s license suspensions, severely hindering employment opportunities for those without access to reliable public transit. If policymakers are serious about strengthening and protecting communities across the state, they must eliminate these punitive fines and fees,” said David Condliffe, Esq., Executive Director of Center for Community Alternatives.

“As a woman who served 27 years in prison, I understand full well the economic hardships placed on the incarcerated and their families which force them into unnecessary debt.  I applaud the New York City Comptroller, Scott Stringer, for shedding light on the egregious and taxing conditions the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision forces the most marginalized of people and communities into,” said Donna Hylton, President of A Little Piece Of Light; activist, author, advocate.

To read Comptroller Stringer’s full report, click here.