With the ACLU and the NJ Bar Association conducting major studies of the corruption endemic to the New Jersey municipal courts system -- and the Legislature about to tackle the problem with hearings scheduled for early next year -- America's largest newspaper group has added its voice to the call for reform. Over the weekend, the Asbury Park Press/ Gannett published the following editorial (printed in full because of its importance).
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EDITORIAL: Reform money-grabbing municipal courts
New Jersey’s municipal courts have increasingly become more interested in cash than justice.
That’s what a Gannett New Jersey investigation has found, reinforcing long-held concerns that local officials view the courts primarily as revenue generators. That motivation influences the development of local ordinances and penalties and effectively pressures locally appointed prosecutors and judges to conduct court business with an eye toward maximizing fines.
The end result is a system that unfairly exploits residents to help balance local budgets. It’s a dirty business that needs to be cleaned up quickly, and to that end we’re encouraged by the reactions of some lawmakers, in particular Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Morris, chairman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, who is already calling for a legislative examination of the court system in the wake of our report.
There’s nothing terribly new about the realization that money rules the municipal courts. We’ve heard such complaints for years, and rare is the person who hasn’t at some point railed against what feels like selective enforcement of traffic laws by police officers filling ticket quotas.
Disenchantment with the court system is inherent; people don’t often appear before a judge to contentedly pay fines they believe they deserve.
But as local budget burdens have increased, so too has the abuse of the municipal courts. For instance, in the Jersey Shore counties of Ocean and Monmouth, court revenue jumped 14 percent between 2010 and 2015. But perhaps more significantly, among the individual towns where increases occurred, the average hike during that same period was 39 percent. That tells us that while not every community is abusing the system, many are doing so outrageously, especially in smaller towns where the court revenue can build up to a substantial portion of the overall budget.
Defenders of the current system fall back on some familiar tropes, none of which deserve much credence:
•If the fines bother you, don’t do anything wrong: Such expectation of perfection is egregiously self-righteous. We’re not talking about crimes here, but such heinous offenses as a lapsed dog license or an expired auto inspection sticker. People make mistakes, and while penalties are needed to assure compliance, that doesn’t explain the size of the fines and the frequency with which they are applied.
•This is about safety, not money: No it’s not. Safety may be the theoretical underpinning of most of these ordinances and traffic laws, but that’s not how the process plays out in practice. A prime example had been the automated red-light cameras calibrated to issue as many tickets as possible at designated intersections. Legislators mercifully scrapped that program, at least for the time being.
•Our judges and prosecutors are above reproach: While there are some bad apples, no doubt, this isn’t primarily about the court personnel. Even those with the best intentions understand that their marching orders from the local officials who appointed them are to squeeze residents for as much fine money as possible. That has to be in the backs of their minds, and their ability to continue in their posts may depend on that particular measure of success.
Insulating the municipal judiciary in some fashion from those local pressures appears to be the most likely and most effective reform. Judges should not be forced to bow to local officials’ revenue grabbing just to keep their jobs; those who do the right thing and more definitively place justice first will merely be replaced, doing residents no good in the long run.
How best to achieve that independence, and overcoming what’s certain to be aggressive local resistance, remains the overriding question. The New Jersey State Bar Association has already been studying the problem, but has not yet released a report. Taking away local control of municipal judge and prosecutor appointments could be an option, as would a potential regionalization of the courts; under the current system, all fines from local ordinance violations go the municipality, while traffic fines are shared with the county. Spreading the fine proceeds more widely would reduce the local incentive.
Some locals who concede the value of the court revenue say it helps pay for services about which residents care, and that might otherwise have to be sacrificed — like trash pickup or snow plowing. That’s a convenient justification, but the perception would be different if the “sacrifice” was, for example, the trimming of some outrageous local salaries.
Regardless of the financial impact, however, a court system that emphasizes revenue collection to the degree of New Jersey’s municipal courts is failing residents. That has to change.