This was supposed to be the year in which New Jersey finally ensured municipal courts are focused on justice and not generating revenue.
Stuart Rabner, New Jersey Supreme Court chief justice, in 2017 created a committee to look into the operations of and fines levied by municipal courts.
Then in April of this year, he sent a memorandum to the state’s municipal courts and Superior Court judges calling for reforms.
“The imposition of punishment should in no way be linked to a town’s need for revenue,” Rabner told them. “And defendants may not be jailed because they are too poor to pay court-ordered financial obligations.”
His Committee on Municipal Court Operations, Fines and Fees issued its 74-page report in July. One of its 49 recommendations was that hearings on a defendant’s ability to pay should be mandatory before issuing a bench warrant or license suspension for late payments.
Committee chairman and Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez, who is an assignment judge in Atlantic County, said municipal court fines and fees can overwhelm and disproportionately affect the poor, possibly setting them up for further costly interactions with the court.
Another committee complaint was that fines and fees vary too much between judges and courts, evidence that justice is uneven in the local courts where people are most likely to experience it. For example, in South Jersey, the average per-case contempt of court assessments the past three years were $54 to $65 in Atlantic County, $23 to $26 in Cape May County and $76 to $83 in Cumberland County.
The report said money for contempt citations, which goes to municipalities, often has more to do with collecting revenue than the fair administration of justice. Municipal courts assessed $22 million for contempt between 2015 and 2017.
Shortly after the report came out, Rabner ordered caps as of Sept. 1 on the amount and number of fines that can be imposed for failure to appear in court and failure to pay fines on time.
He kept the ball rolling that month, naming another group to help implement key recommendations from the committee report. The next month, Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, introduced three bills to address specific recommendations — extending municipal judge terms from three to five years to reduce political pressure to produce revenue, establishing a state process for evaluating municipal judges, and letting defendants earn credit toward fines by completing court-imposed drug or alcohol treatment.
Two of those bills haven’t budged from the Senate Judiciary Committee where they landed. The other hasn’t even been assigned to a committee. Not surprising considering that Democrats control the Legislature and want control of and credit for everything.
Too bad legislators couldn’t build on the year’s court-reform momentum by starting to address in bipartisan fashion some of the recommendations of the Rabner committee. The report said many people see local courts as municipal revenue generators. Reforms are needed to restore confidence in the fairness of this part of the justice system.