City Council Speaker Johnson Wants Pay-What-You-Can Fines From Harlem To Hollis

May 16, 2019

Some New York City fines could soon be like admission to the Met: Pay what you can. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson unveiled a proposal Wednesday that would charge New Yorkers for certain civil offenses based on their wages.

The Council could pass legislation to set up the so-called day fine system, which would calculate fines based on a percentage of a person’s daily income, Johnson said. The model has worked well in other countries and even in the city through a pilot program on Staten Island, he said.

“It will not over-punish the poor, and it will not under-punish the rich. It will be fair,” Johnson, a Democrat, said during a wide-ranging Thursday speech on criminal justice reform. “… The time is right to bring this progressive idea back to our city.”

Day fines were tested in Staten Island’s criminal court from 1988 to 1989. The experiment assigned crimes a number of “day-fine units” each worth a share of the person’s daily income that helped determine the total fine, according to a 1990 report on the project.

The Staten Island initiative’s results offered “positive evidence” for supporters of the day fine as a way to improve how fines are administered in the U.S., the Vera Institute of Justice report says.

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The Council today could only change how fines are imposed through the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, which handles civil penalties, Johnson said. State lawmakers would have to get involved to expand the model to criminal offenses, he said.

Authorities would verify people’s income through a process that would require those paying the fine to swear that they’re not lying about how much money they make, the speaker said.

“Poor people are disproportionately penalized and incarcerated and this is a way to look at the criminal justice system not in a punitive way and in a revenue-generation way, but in a way where we look at things and we do things in a proportionate way given the crime,” Johnson told reporters after his speech at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

The proposal was one of several Johnson rolled out in his address, which came as the Council negotiates the upcoming city budget with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration. The Democratic mayor launched his run for president on Thursday morning.

Johnson said his proposals will be part of the budget talks.

“We have to reform our criminal justice system, and the programs that I laid out here today are programs that work,” he said.

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