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Assembly Approves Spencer & Johnson Bill to Help Violators “Do the Time” If They Can’t “Pay the Fine"

Measure Would Give Courts Discretion to Impose Jail Time, Labor or Community Service for Those Who Can’t Pay Fines

By a vote of 68-6, the full Assembly on Thursday approved legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats L. Grace Spencer and Gordon Johnson to help residents who are unable to pay court-imposed financial penalties by giving them credit against the penalties for time served in jail.

“Giving individuals the option to work off the debt owed would be a progressive and more productive approach to justice, particularly for those with limited financial means” said Spencer (D-Essex). “In the long run it may be beneficial to the state as much as it is to the individual.”

Specifically, the bill (A-581) would authorize courts to credit a person in default of a court-imposed financial obligation – such as a fine, statutorily-mandated assessment, surcharge, or penalty -when that person has served jail time for the default. In doing so, the court could order credit for each day of confinement, the amount of which would be determined by the court, but would not be less than $50 for each day of confinement served.

However, the bill specifies that a “court-imposed financial obligation” does not include restitution, child support, or other support or maintenance ordered by a court.

“This legislation would give individuals an opportunity to pay their debt to society even if they don’t have the financial means to do so,” said Johnson (D-Bergen.) “By giving the court the discretion to impose this alternative, we can help people avoid the legal entanglements associated with defaulting on a penalty.”

Additionally, the bill would further modify the court’s enforcement authority concerning defaults on financial obligations that it finds were done willfully, which under existing statutes may be addressed by imposing a term of imprisonment, participation in a labor assistance program, or enforced community service. In doing so, the term a court can impose for imprisonment or labor or community service participation could not exceed one day for each $50 of the fine imposed, and the term could not exceed a period of 90 consecutive days; whereas currently it is one day for each $20 of the fine imposed.

The bill would also create a similar allowance for defaults on fines, assessments, surcharges, or other financial penalties related to most motor vehicle offenses. Instead of the current law’s requirement that imprisonment in a county jail or workhouse be imposed upon a default, the bill would give the court the option to impose imprisonment or labor or community service participation.

The measure now awaits consideration by the Senate.