ALBANY — Criminal justice advocates say poverty continues to be criminalized during the coronavirus pandemic with court debts mounting for many New Yorkers, including some losing their drivers’ licenses or being jailed for unpaid fines.
As people are being asked to stay home and avoid contact with others, advocates say New Yorkers are being ticketed and jailed for unpaid court fees, which disproportionately impact low-income individuals and minorities.
They’re calling on Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to use his executive authority to stop incarcerating people, or suspending drivers’ licenses, for non-payment of court debt. They also said there should be no citations for parking violations or other non-violent offenses where fines, fees, interest and penalties can quickly mount if a person can’t afford to pay or is unable to attend a court proceeding.
“For months, we have been working hard to end the suspension of drivers’ licenses based on the inability to pay traffic fines or failure to appear in court,” state Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, said during a video news conference Monday. “Simply put, that inability to pay just became that much more common as we have millions out of work during this pandemic.”
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According to the Driven by Justice Coalition, New York issued nearly 1.7 million driver’s license suspensions for traffic debt during a 28-month period between 2016 and 2018. Nearly 75 percent of those with suspended licenses drive anyway, said Ranit Patel of The Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit public defender organization.
The calls to suspend fines and fees and reinstate drivers’ licenses is specific to non-safety related suspensions, Patel added. A bipartisan group of 60 state lawmakers from both houses of the state Legislature also signed a letter sent to Cuomo last week urging immediate action.
The pandemic has led to the closure of non-essential businesses and left more than a million New Yorkers on unemployment. That also leaves localities strapped for cash, and state officials have warned counties to expect drastic cuts to local aid and other areas as they deal with the growing deficit. With dried up revenue sources, advocates say communities may make it up through fines and fees.
Antonya Jeffrey, state deputy director for the Fines & Fees Justice Center in New York City, said the criminal justice system is forcing people to decide whether to expose themselves to the virus by using public transportation or accruing more debt and possible jail time if they choose to drive on a suspended license.
“This is a deadly situation that folks are living in right now. And it is unjust,” she said. “It should not be on the back of the poorest people who are already struggling.”
Ron Deutsch, executive director of the liberal Fiscal Policy Institute, said city governments have increased anticipated fine revenue in their budgets in recent years, with reliance on that revenue common in communities with larger populations of people of color.
“Local governments are going to be looking to restart their economies,” but they should keep the real price paid by community members as well as the law enforcement, court system and debt collection costs associated with the pursuit in mind, Deutsch said. “The reality is this is not a way to generate revenue responsibly.”