The New Jersey Courts released a special report completed by the NJ Supreme Court Committee on Municipal Court Operations, Fines and Fees in July 2018 making significant recommendations for reform and improvement. The Supreme Court Committee, formed by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner in March 2017, was charged with reforming municipal court practices and preserving judicial independence in the state’s local courts.
The report confirms that there are 2.5 million outstanding municipal court bench warrants for failure to appear and failure to pay. According to the report “these warrants often involve minor offenses and minimal amounts and the cost and collateral consequences in the enforcement of these warrants can be devastating to individuals and families.” The report expressed profound concern with the excessive imposition of financial obligations on certain defendants and the excessive use of bench warrants and license suspensions as collection mechanisms.
The Committee appeared influenced by the negative press around revenue generated by unfair municipal court practices and the conviction of a municipal court judge for a ticket-fixing scheme.
The report included eight guiding principles and 49 recommendations for municipal court reform. The significant Committee recommendations address fair sentencing and the use of sentencing alternatives; procedural safeguards for defendants unable to pay a fine; voluntary compliance with court-ordered appearances and legal financial obligations; improving access to the municipal courts through technology; and maintaining the judicial independence of the municipal courts to promote transparency and fairness.
Making ability to pay determinations, allowing defendants to receive credits toward legal financial obligations for hours spent in clinical treatment, and enacting alternatives to driver’s license suspension were among the recommendations of the Committee’s report. The Supreme Court’s report clearly outlines it intention to reduce the reliance on legal financial obligations especially for indigent defendants. However, the report fails to address the prohibitive cost of a public defender application. The Reentry Coalition; advocates for prisoner reentry, recommends that when indigency has been determined, public defender application fees should be waived. Consistent with recommendations from the Brennan Center’s Criminal Justice Tool Kit, New Jersey should consider creating and enforcing exemptions for indigence.
Lastly, the success of the reforms recommended by the Supreme Court Committee will only be realized if law enforcement and municipalities work collaboratively. Failing to address unfair police practices that disproportionately affect the poor or people of color will inhibit the impact on these reforms. As evidenced by Recommendation #7(page 44) for vicinage-wide community-led programs that encourage voluntary appearance and safe surrender of defendants with outstanding bench warrants, law enforcement is a crucial partner in achieving reforms in municipal court practices. Law enforcement assisted diversion programs are only successful with community partnerships. Whereas the NJ Courts states that the municipal court is the face of justice for many citizens, the first interaction with justice is with the police.
Chief Justice Rabner has amended rules governing the courts to be adopted effective September 1, 2018 that specifically address failure to appear and monetary sanctions. Additionally, Chief Rabner issued another order that sets up hearings to consider the dismissal of unresolved cases involving minor municipal court offenses more than 15 years old. The NJ Courts reported that are nearly 800,000 open warrants for failure to appear that could be addressed by this order.