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New York Lawmakers And Advocates Discuss Court Fee And Surcharge Elimination

NEW YORK NOW - State lawmakers in New York are considering legislation that would eliminate fees and surcharges for court and probation, and prevent the garnishment of commissary accounts to pay those fees.

Members of the state Legislature returned to Albany briefly Wednesday to hold a hearing on the bill, called the “End Predatory Court Fees Act.”

The measure, sponsored by Sen. Julia Salazar, D-Brooklyn, would also do away with mandatory minimum fines for violations like traffic offenses and require judges to assess a person’s ability to pay those fines.

Ahead of the hearing, Salazar, who chairs the Senate Crime and Correction Committee, said the goal is to decriminalize poverty.

“This has a real impact on people’s everyday lives,” Salazar said.

“We know that the vast majority of people who go through the criminal court system in New York State, are lower income individuals. The vast majority are from communities of color, and as a result this has a disproportionate racial and economic impact.”

Advocate Peggy Herrera said she has personally experienced the impact of those court fees.

Herrera said her son, Justin, had an anxiety attack two years ago that required an emergency response. But after he calmed down, she said, police insisted that he be removed from their home. Herrera said she tried to prevent that, which led to her arrest.

“My son’s criminalization and my arrest has caused not just emotional hardship for my family, but financial strain as well,” Herrera said.

“The cumulative court fees and bail payments now total over $12,000, including court fees in excess of over $200 for every conviction, as well as youthful offender fees, and fees for traffic violations. These fees affect my son’s credit, as well as his ability to work consistently as a valet and delivery driver.”

Sen. Tom O’Mara, a Republican from Chemung County who opposes the bill, said those fees fund important programs.

“These fees help support our court system. They’re only paid by those who are ultimately convicted or plead guilty to an actual crime in court. I agree with parts of the legislation, I don’t think people should be incarcerated for their inability to pay, ” O’Mara said.

“The STOP-DWI program is fully funded by fines levied from criminal convictions for driving while intoxicated. We need to ensure that these types of programs can continue.”

That bill sits in the Codes Committee in both the Senate and the Assembly.