Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Picking Pockets

The platform of Black Lives Matter lists six areas of "demands," which in their terms they group under: political power, community control, economic justice, invest-divest, reparations, and end the war on black people.

Amidst the hot, radical, and absolutist rhetoric are legitimate proposals- uh, er- demands including "an end to capital punishment," an "end to the criminalization and dehumanization of black people," and "an immediate end to the privatization of police, prisons, jails, probation, parole, food, phone and all other criminal justice related services."|

As it happens, the State of New Jersey (by statute) ended capital punishment several years ago, generally avoids the "zero-tolerance school policies and arrests of students" and placement of police in schools slammed by BLM, and has largely not privatized criminal justice services (the hideous Governor Christie, notwithstanding).

Nonetheless, even in the predominately Democratic and liberal state abutted by Pennsylvania, New York, and Delaware, there are disturbing penal trends. Gannett-owned Asbury Park Press reports

The chairman of the Assembly's Judiciary Committee said Monday he wants state lawmakers to study municipal court reform after an Asbury Park Press investigation called the fairness of the system into question and showed how municipalities increasingly rely on court fines for revenue.

"(The story) gives cause to take a step back and think this is an area that we should study and look at to determine if there should be legislative fixes," said state Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Madison, chairman of the Judiciary Committee. "Justice should be just that at all levels."

Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon, R-Little Silver, said the Press report raised issues that should be a concern of every elected official.

"We have to stop looking at motorists as ATM machines," he said. "You want to remove any profit motivation from police enforcement of any kind. When tickets are written that don't improve safety, it doesn't help anybody. It's not a reasonable way to raise revenue."

The mountain west has the Rocky Mountains, South Dakota and Wyoming the Black Hills; Florida has Disney World and New Jersey has the shore or more popularly, "the Shore." However

The Press investigation found that municipalities often turn to the law for new revenue, especially in small Shore towns where municipal court revenues have nearly doubled in the last five years. Towns have the power to pass new ordinances or increase fines in old ones, enforce the fines through its police force and then send defendants to local courts headed by judges appointed by the town leaders.

Against this backdrop, municipal courts in Monmouth and Ocean counties raked in more than $26.2 million in 2015 — up $3.2 million, or 14 percent, from 2010. Municipal court revenue in 37 Monmouth and Ocean county towns increased from 2010 through 2015. The average increase was 39 percent.

"Our courts and police should not be seen as revenue generators," said O'Scanlon, who added that his staff has been discussing the municipal money grab for a while and exploring legal remedies. "That's not what they're there for."

Or at least that's not what they should be there for. Nonetheless, they are, as the north Jersey legislator recognizes:

"It's fair that municipalities and governing bodies get to appoint those who serve as judges and prosecutors, but on the other end, maybe part of the answer is to insulate the judiciary from that kind of pressure," McKeon said.

Municipal judges are appointed every three years by governing bodies of towns. And while they're sworn to follow the rule of law and judicial ethics, the pressure to bring in the money is potent in New Jersey, lawyers and former judges told the Press.

The New Jersey State Bar Association earlier this year assembled a panel to study the independence of municipal judges and whether the political pressure they face through their appointment impacts decision-making. The panel hasn't yet disclosed its findings.

That should be enough to energize an organization such as Black Lives Movement keen on wiping out the abuses of the law enforcement and criminal justice systems. If not, they might notice

New Jersey's municipal court fines are also regressive and have a negative impact on the poor, who often end up with more charges and fines if they fail to respond to a ticket or miss a payment on a past violation, Ramsey said.

"The fines are the same whether you're a millionaire or not," he said. "It kills (poor) people. It clobbers them. They can't pay the fines."

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey is studying the impact of the state's municipal courts on the poor, said Alexi Velez, a law fellow with the organization.

Velez said she's examining the hefty monetary fines and sanctions for traffic offenses and low-level non-indictable crimes heard in municipal court. She said much of the data that have been collected correspond to the findings in the Press' investigation.

"We're interested in how the shortcomings of due process impact all New Jerseyans," Velez said. "In particular, we are aware of the disproportionate impact on the 11 percent of those who live at or below the poverty line."

It's highly unlikely that this is an issue confined to New Jersey. Undoubtedly, there are municipal courts in states throughout the nation acting as a banker for municipal government. While the American Civil Liberties Union is providing air power, it could use some ground support from Black Lives Matter in the "war" it believes the American system of injustice is waging.

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