criminal justice

A Fine Change: Civil Penalties May Soon Be Based on Income

Council Speaker Corey Johnson speaks at City Hall on Jan. 9, 2019.
Council Speaker Corey Johnson speaks at City Hall on Jan. 9, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Forget about a fixed flat-fine system: New Yorkers would pay civil penalties based on a percentage of their income, under a proposal by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

He’s calling for a “day fines” pilot program where an independent city administrative judge would determine how much an offender must pay based on what the person earns per day.

Johnson plans to formally announce the proposal during a speech detailing other criminal justice reform ideas at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice on Thursday.

Critics of the current fixed-rate system argue that it benefits high-income offenders and unfairly hurts low-income lawbreakers.

“This is a common sense, progressive policy that will really help low-income New Yorkers,” Johnson said in a statement to THE CITY. “It doesn’t sock the rich or hurt the poor. There is no reason not to support this reform, and I’m proud to champion it.”

Exactly which offenses would be included has yet to be decided. But day fine programs typically use a two-step procedure to determine fine amounts: rating the gravity of the offense and evaluating daily income.

Day fine systems, developed in Scandinavia in the 1920s, are currently in use in parts of Europe.

Second Chance for Program

It would not be the first time the city has tried the idea: A similar pilot program ran in Staten Island from Sept. 1, 1988 through Aug. 31, 1989.

During the experiment, the average fine rose by 25%, from $205 before the program to $257, according to a Vera Institute study. The increase was due, in part, to steeper fines issued to wealthier offenders over the course of the year.

Still, judges were barred from imposing higher fines due to state law limits.

If those regulations were changed, the revenue spike would have been even more pronounced, the Vera review found.

Cases were handled by Staten Island judges during the 1988-1989 pilot program. The Johnson proposal calls for having the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings adjudicate such cases.

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