New Jersey Clergy push for state to let incarcerated people reduce burdensome debt while in prison

by Ashley Balcerzak for

March 16, 2023

JERSEY CITY — More than one hundred clergy and community leaders celebrated Hudson County’s commitment to help incarcerated people petition the courts to address outstanding fines, fees, warrants and detainers while they are jailed, and some spoke out during an event Wednesday to urge the state to follow Hudson County’s example.

Hudson County leaders said they will widely publicize in prisons a “request for relief” form that allows people to schedule court appearances over Zoom or in person while incarcerated, request that fines or penalties be converted into jail time, and have the court grant a person credit for the time they have served, recall a warrant or vacate fees, among other things. 

“This enables people and informs people that they have the ability to get a judge to deal with these penalties while they are behind bars, as opposed to having to deal with them while they’re trying to put their lives back together,” said Michael Stanley, lead organizer for New Jersey Together, a community-building coalition.

“It’s amazing that something this simple can have such profound effects,” Stanley said.

Posting info on every floor of jail

“Inmates were saying they didn’t know about it, so we’re posting it on every floor so the inmates can see it,” said Edward Nestor, deputy director of the Hudson County Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, during Wednesday's gathering at Our Lady of Sorrows Roman Catholic Church in Jersey City, designed to pressure New Jersey to eliminate burdensome fines and fees for those who are detained.

Cora Simmons, a retired postal worker, said sheriffs knocked on her door because her son did not appear in traffic court. She explained he was arrested and being detained in the Hudson County jail. 

“My son was diagnosed with cancer while in custody and being transported to a hospital for cancer treatments, so I wonder why they couldn't take him back and forth to court,” Simmons said. “He could have come home and started getting his life together.”

Fines pile up while in prison

Boris Franklin said he had left prison owing around $10,000 in motor vehicle fines and $35,000 in child support payments that had ballooned over the 11 years he was incarcerated.  

“Poor people are coming out poorer than they were before they went in,” said Franklin, lead organizer of Jersey City Together, a chapter of New Jersey Together. “I have friends who owe $100,000.”

People returning from incarceration can have difficulty maintaining employment, because they must continually return to court for outstanding matters, or cannot obtain their drivers’ licenses because of outstanding fines, said Al-Tariq Witcher of the Returning Citizens Support Group. 

Policies on fines that protect people's rights

The National Center for Access to Justice at Fordham Law School identified policies on fines and fees that “best protect people’s rights” and graded state laws in a nationwide study in 2022. New Jersey ranked third-strongest, tied with Colorado and New York, though with a failing grade of 48 out of 100 points.

The organization recommended that New Jersey make changes such as barring the use of private debt collection agencies to collect fines and fees, stopping the practice of suspending drivers' licenses for failure to pay fees and adopting “individualized fines” that are scaled to the severity of the offense and a person's income, among other measures. 

NJ bill eliminates some fees and fines

There have been recent efforts in New Jersey to tackle the issue. In January 2022, Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation that eliminated fees, fines and penalties imposed on those under 18 years old in the juvenile justice system. And last May, Attorney General Matthew Platkin issued a directive ordering police not to jail people who didn’t appear in municipal courts or failed to pay fines for minor offenses. 

In his budget address, Murphy proposed eliminating the fees charged for public defender representation, which can sometimes reach $1,000. The measure would have to be passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor to become law.

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