David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

We take for granted that life in New York requires navigating a maze of government fees, fines, tickets and surcharges. They’re the cost of doing business – a hidden tax.  Everyone knows you leave the courthouse with your pockets lighter.

Some of these penalties started out as a deterrent. Most have evolved into an easy way for New York State and New York City to raise revenue.  Undoubtedly, the financial burden falls disproportionately on small “mom-and-pop” neighborhood businesses, low-income people, and Black and Latinx youth caught up in the criminal justice system.

For the wealthy, a traffic ticket or a business fine represents an inconvenient credit card swipe, and a story to share over dinner. But for the poor, especially those raising small children or caring for an elderly parent, fines and surcharges can cut into the food budget or, God forbid, result in a missed rent payment.

No offense seems too small in New York City to be punished with a fine, and the penalty is padded with surcharges. Think of the bloated system like government walking a large dog. At this point, we can’t even see the end of the leash as our friend darts and dashes about, out of control.

Mayor Eric Adams last month made some progress, announcing reforms –  which include reducing fines for breaking 49 local regulations and instituting a grace period for 39 of them — that city officials estimate will save 200,000 small businesses $8.9 million a year in penalties.  It was the result of Adams directing city departments to reduce fine schedules, and give warnings and grace periods for first-time violations. Departments that chose not to pursue reform had to explain why.

Also last year, New York State’s Driver’s License Suspension Reform Act went into effect, ending driver’s license suspensions for unpaid traffic tickets. Even better, the law allowed New Yorkers with unpaid traffic tickets to set up payment plans, which removed the threat of a license revocation that could destabilize a household’s finances.

We applaud these reforms and others, like free phone calls from city jails and forgiving $125 million in debt for more than 50,000 City University of New York students. It’s a great start, but there’s more work to do at the city and state level.

Nowhere is the system of fines and surcharges more burdensome, unfair and in need of reform than in the state criminal courts, where the New York State Bar Association has for years called for reform of mandatory charges imposed without regard to the ability to pay.  Currently, courts are prohibited from waiving the fees, which are deposited in the state treasury.  The association called the fees a “regressive tax” that “causes long-term harms to indigent defendants.”

Fines on inmates are collected from their commissary accounts at state prisons, which incarcerated persons typically use to pay for phone calls and purchases from the prison store, such as toothpaste or snacks.  Even after release, New Yorkers on parole are charged a $30-per-month supervision fee, as well as additional financial penalties for violations. 

According to the Bar Association, a third of all surcharge revenue comes from traffic violations. About 41 percent ($2,167,076) of the annual New York State surcharge revenue came from guilty pleas to violations in criminal court, a total that does not include guilty pleas to traffic infractions. Approximately 33 percent ($1,728,858) of surcharge revenue came from violations of the Vehicle and Traffic Law (VTL), not including DWI violations or additional fines that are imposed on violations of the VTL.

Rolling back fees and surcharges is a matter of equity and racial justice. It is well documented that New York City Police enforcement patterns make African-American and Latinx men more likely to encounter the criminal justice system – and rack up fines and surcharges in the process.  Look no further than the New York City neighborhoods with the highest poverty rates, where people of color are more than twice as likely to be stopped for turnstile jumping — which carries a $100 fine — as those in the rest of the city, 

New York State and New York City have been inspired, in part, by San Francisco, which in 2016 launched the Financial Justice Project, a campaign to lower fees, fines and mark-ups on low-income people of color.  For example, Black residents make up less than six percent of San Francisco’s population but comprise 45 percent of people arrested for failure to appear or failure to pay traffic court warrants.  The city has so far waived $32 million in criminal justice system debt.

Everyone involved – Mayor Adams, Gov. Kathy Hochul and the New York City Council – should order their agencies to go on the hunt for ways to reduce the burden of fees and surcharges on the people who are least able to pay.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 175 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s

website: www.cssny.org.

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