N.J. to bar cops from jailing people who skip court, don’t pay fines on minor offenses

By: - May 26, 2022 7:05 am

The move is intended to reduce both pretrial incarceration and potentially volatile police encounters. (Fran Baltzer for New Jersey Monitor)

Police in New Jersey can no longer jail people who fail to appear in municipal courts or pay fines for minor offenses, under a new directive issued Wednesday by acting Attorney General Matt Platkin.

The move is intended to reduce both pretrial incarceration and potentially volatile police encounters, Platkin said. It will also save cops the hassle and time of processing low-level law-breakers charged with offenses — like shoplifting, traffic violations, and disorderly conduct —typically punishable by fines and fees instead of incarceration, he said.

Previously, if someone failed to appear in court or pay a fine, a judge could issue an arrest warrant. An officer who encountered someone with a warrant would have to arrest them, even if their offense was for something minor like public urination or a noise violation.

Hundreds of thousands of municipal court bench warrants remain outstanding in New Jersey, according to Platkin’s office.

The new directive applies to people with municipal court bench warrants where a judge has set bail at $500 or less. Police who encounter people with such open warrants now will be able to give them a new court date and release them on the spot, without searching or handcuffing them. Officers will be given municipal court schedules so they can issue new court dates.

“Under these protocols, residents will no longer be subjected to unnecessary and intrusive custodial arrests for hundreds of thousands of outstanding low-level warrants — and officers across New Jersey will avoid spending time effectuating and processing such arrests that by and large do not further public safety,” Platkin said in a statement.

Reformers applauded the directive as a move that recognizes the ravages incarceration can cause, and said it should help stop the kind of policing that disproportionately punishes people of color and those who struggle financially

Many people can’t afford to pay fines, skip work, or find transportation to go to court, so their failure to appear stems more from inability than ill intentions, reformers said.

“In many Black communities, it is commonplace to receive a bench warrant and be jailed due to an unpaid low-level ticket offense,” Gantry Fox, director of operations at Salvation and Social Justice, said in a statement released by Platkin’s office.

Reformers hope the policy change will help build better relationships between police and the communities they serve and reduce a backlog of court cases created by the pandemic and worsened by a shortage of judges.


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.