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The Money Pit

In 2015, the Council on Economic Advisors recognized that during the period of exponential growth in the criminal justice system, policy makers argued taxpayers should not bear the responsibility for increasing costs that were incurred. In their brief Fines, Fees, and Bail that drew heavily from the work of researchers such as Harris, Bannon, Patel, and Evans, the CEA acknowledged that state and local governments increasingly turned to monetary sanctions; such as fines for infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies, as well as court fees, as sources of additional revenue.

New Jersey is no different. Since November 2014, the Judiciary has collected a total of $130.9 million from court fees to fund part of criminal justice reform in New Jersey. Locally, municipal court fines are a significant revenue source for many New Jersey municipalities. A review of New Jersey’s adopted municipal budgets shows local towns, boroughs, and cities earning nearly $200 million in cash in 2016.

The top ten municipal court revenue generators included:

Poverty Level and Average Household Income were derived from the United States Census Bureau Retrieved February 2018.

Those municipalities highlighted in red are also among the top 15 poorest cities in New Jersey. These ten municipalities collected more than $51 million in court fines; representing 26% of all revenue earned by municipal courts across the State. Failure to pay outstanding criminal justice debt often results in the issuance of arrest warrants. Arrest warrants and incarceration become the apparatus for municipal courts for fine collection. With fines serving as a significant revenue source, the impetus to reform municipal court practices may be reduced.

The CEA’s characterized monetary sanctions like fines and fees as regressive payments that disproportionately impact the poor. As Harris, noted “legal debt is particularly injurious: unlike the consumer debt, it is not offset by the acquisition of goods or property, is not subject to relief through bankruptcy proceedings, and may trigger an arrest warrant, arrest, or incarceration (Harris, 2010, p. 1763).” Harris therefore recognizes criminal justice involvement as both consequence and cause of poverty.

Consider Jose C. who left prison in 2017 owing more than $2,000 to other municipalities unrelated to his prison sentence. "It started out as like $500 but ended up to be like $2,000 once I got out..." he reported. He is now working and rebuilding his life while anxiously awaiting his driver's license to be restored so he can stop relying on family members so heavily. However, he reported that he had to pay a driver's license restoration fee to the Motor Vehicle Commission three times in the last six months due to outstanding tickets. The fee each time was $100.

To hear more about Jose's experience, please scroll down to the Wanted on Warrants podcast.

The Brennan Center for Justice discovered that scant information is available about the cost for these collection efforts and suggest that states likely spend more to collect debt than they recoup from debtors (Bannon, 2010). What would seem certain is that the crushing financial debt and risk of imprisonment felt by those entrapped in the system exacts a high toll on individuals and their families.


“Given the costs of collection, the regular reporting to court required of debtors, the repeated stints in jail for nonpayment or insufficient payment, and the costs of judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, clerks, bailiffs, court reporters, and others who manage the debtors, it is hard to imagine that the system of LFOs is cost-effective or efficient by any standard.”

Alexes Harris, A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as Punishment for the Poor


It is estimated that 80 to 90% of people charged with felonies are low-income. Acknowledging that regressive fines and fees disproportionately harm those without means, the examination of ways to remedy unfair court practices is paramount. Reducing the reliance on fees and fines as significant sources of revenue for public coffers as well as ending the entrapment low-income individuals in a cycle of permanent punishment must be explored.

Click now on the icon and hear more about the role of money in the municipal courts in the Wanted for Warrants podcast.

Click here for Reference Page.

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