Covenant House of New Jersey (CHNJ) offers shelter and services to homeless youth ages 18-21 and is the sole provider of no-cost legal services to youth charged with noncriminal offenses in municipal court. Many homeless youth come to CHNJ with outstanding warrants for failure to appear in court and/or charges for low-level misdemeanors resulting from periods of homelessness and adolescent behavior (e.g., subway fare evasion or shoplifting). When they do appear in court, they are ordered to pay fines and fees for the offenses. Still homeless and unable to pay, youth then typically incur contempt charges. And this results in new warrants, additional fines, and ultimately driver’s license suspension.
In June 2018, the New Jersey Supreme Court Committee on Municipal Court Operations, Fines, and Fees released a report proposing a number of solutions to remedy the problems currently plaguing the municipal courts. As the problems detailed in the report disproportionately affect homeless youth, CHNJ asked Lowenstein to help prepare comments and suggestions in response.
The comments encouraged the committee to join other states in establishing a presumptive exemption from municipal court fines and fees for homeless people. We also asked the committee to consider wraparound services such as job training and mental health and substance abuse treatment as alternatives to municipal court fees and fines. Because homeless youth are often unable to pay the fines and fees associated with municipal court offenses, they end up in an endless cycle of debt and jail time. A homelessness-based exemption and credit for the completion of wraparound services would help break this cycle.