Sun Editorial: Does the punishment fit the crime?

New Jersey State Supreme Court takes a look at municipal courts, fees and surcharges.

By Alan Bauer
The Sun

A recent report from the state Supreme Court addresses the question of whether municipal courts have become too focused on revenue collection instead of administration of justice. Included is a look at how the system can adversely impact poor people or, through various surcharges, turn a relatively minor offense into a really expensive financial obligation.

The report uses a series of examples to illustrate its point. In one scenario, a man gets a $130 ticket for failing to get his car inspected. After being unable to pay the fine and then added fees, he receives another ticket and more fees. By the end of the day, he owes $1,538.

Another tells the story of someone charged with possessing a small amount of marijuana. A $200 fee for a public defender and a $100 fine were issued. Fair enough. But then surcharges were added bringing the final tally to $1,008.

The state League of Municipalities was quick to point out — and correctly so — that not all of that money goes to the municipality. A big chunk goes to the state and other places. For example, fines for certain motor vehicle offenses include money for autism and brain injury research — both no doubt worthy causes, but is this the right way to fund them?

Looking at the above scenarios, some might say — again, correctly — the first guy should have gotten his car inspected and the second shouldn’t be walking around with marijuana. But sometimes people forget about a ticket or court date, just do something stupid or simply don’t have the money to pay the fine. They should be held accountable, but shouldn’t their eventual punishment fit the crime?

The report includes a host of recommendations, including sentencing alternatives. If someone simply can’t pay the fine, instead of racking up even more fees and surcharges, how about community service?

If someone commits a minor offense, but can’t afford to pay the fine, punishment other than continued financial pressure should be available.