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Lawmakers and advocates rally to pass the End Predatory Court Fees Act

March 17, 2023 Robert Abruzzese
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STATEWIDE — State legislators, advocates, and New Yorkers affected by court debt gathered at the State Capitol on Wednesday to demand the passage of the End Predatory Court Fees Act.

The legislation, introduced by State Senator Julia Salazar and Assemblymember Kenny Burgos, aims to eliminate state court fees and probation fees, mandatory minimum fines, incarceration due to unpaid fines and fees, and garnishment of commissary accounts.

As the state budget is being debated, speakers called for an end to New York’s reliance on court fees, which they argue is a regressive form of taxation that traps millions of low-income residents in a cycle of debt and punishment. The press conference featured state legislators and representatives from organizations such as the Legal Aid Society, the Brooklyn Defender Services and the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The proposed act seeks to put an end to the state’s mandatory surcharge, which was first implemented in the 1980s to raise state revenue. Since then, lawmakers have continually increased the surcharge, despite failing to maintain legally mandated records on how the revenue is assessed, collected and distributed. Critics argue that the financial burden of court fees disproportionately impacts communities of color, low-income communities and women.

A recent report revealed that New York’s mandatory surcharge is among the most burdensome in the United States, with the state being one of only four that does not exempt individuals who are unable to pay from owing these fees.

A recent report by the Fines and Fees Justice Center compared court fees to poll taxes that were used to keep Black people from voting during the Jim Crow era.

The report highlighted the similarities between historical poll taxes and modern-day court assessments and surcharges in the U.S. Poll taxes, initially intended to raise general revenue, eventually became a tool for the disenfranchisement of Black people. Court assessments and surcharges today, which are meant to finance government functions, result in penalties, restrictions, and punishments for those unable to pay, disproportionately affecting communities of color and lower-income earners.

In 30 states, unpaid court debts can even lead to voting restrictions. The article argues that funding government programs through these fees is unfair, counterproductive, and unsustainable, and calls for state and local lawmakers to end these inequitable forms of taxation.

Advocates argue that the End Predatory Court Fees Act is essential to breaking the cycle of poverty and criminalization that affects millions of New Yorkers. With food prices having increased significantly in 2022, many New York families are faced with the impossible choice of putting food on the table or paying down court debt to avoid incarceration and additional fees, they said.

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