Activists from New Jersey Together gathered at Our Lady of Sorrows Roman Catholic Church in Jersey City to call on the state to follow Hudson County’s lead in supporting clearing fees and fines against the incarcerated.
By Daniel Ulloa/Hudson County View
“We’re talking about getting people before a judge so that they can resolve all of their debts before they’re released,” Rev. Laurie Wurm, of the Grace Van Vorst Church, said at the press conference.
“Forgiveness in scripture means ending all debts. It means complete restoration to holdings. It means restoring a person to land, community, and also financial means.”
She said the criminal justice doesn’t restore people to wholeness by continuing to fine them.
“Because you did your time for one warrant, you can end up going back out there to the community and getting picked up again because of another warrant and never have the experience of finishing your time. We’re calling on state officials and Governor Murphy to implement the reforms that the officials in Hudson County have agreed to,” Wurm added.
Galindo King, a minister in training at Bethel Church of Morristown, stated that he was in attendance to “celebrate the victory we had with Hudson County,” noting that he had been incarcerated at one point.
“As a returning citizen myself, I’ve been personally affected by this. I’ve had to work long and hard to assist returning citizens with addressing outstanding violations and fines. A better use of my time would be assisting those at risk of dying from opiates and fentanyl.”
Al-Tariq Witcher, of The Returning Citizens Support Group, said they help individuals with paperwork that should have been addressed early in their incarceration.
“During my incarceration, which I served for over 20 years, I worked as a prison paralegal where I helped individuals address outstanding warrants fines and fees,” he began, noting he has continued in a similar role since being released.
“Some of the biggest obstacles people face while transitioning are the fines, fees, and other court order cases that result. People keep getting dragged into court to keep fighting outstanding charges. Many of those outstanding issues can only be changed through legislation.”
Witcher also said a simplified form adopted by the State and used by multiple agencies would help.
Cora Simmons explained that her son was arrested and held at the Hudson County Correctional Facility, since when he was arrested, another charge came up in another jurisdiction.
She said the jail did not allow him to address that separate legal matter, however, when he was diagnosed with cancer, he was transported to a hospital for treatment.
“They could have taken him back and forth to court. He incurred fines and fees that were tacked on,” Simmons added.
Freedom House Counselor Larry Mays explained he has had to pay tens of thousands of dollars due to getting in trouble in several South Jersey municipalities.
“I would come home to huge fines and surcharges even though I served my time. If I had the opportunity while I was locked up … some of those fines could have been taken care of. This is definitely something that needs to be initiated statewide,” he said.
“Commissioner O’Dea, this is an issue that affects us all. We want to thank you for your commitment to this. Will you work with us and other county officials to do whatever is necessary to implement this effort as thoroughly as possible?” Elizabeth Belle asked.
“Absolutely. I will,” O’Dea said to applause.
The county official also committed to helping NJT encourage other governing bodies, including the state legislature, to adopt this policy, to which he said he would – indicating that Essex County Commissioner Brendan Gill wanted to make this happen.
O’Dea also mentioned he helped felons get jobs through construction unions, which wasn’t always easy since fines preventing many from getting their driver’s licenses restored.
“If you want to become a building trade union apprentice, you must have a driver’s license. I know firsthand the difficulty individuals are having. We need to make sure every one of those debts are paid.”
Hudson County Correctional Facility Deputy Director Edward Nestor also committed to the same effort, stating that they had sought to implement it quickly once asked, despite some red tape around it.
“We have reached out to our state and local officials. We can help individuals clear millions of dollars off the books, reduce recidivism, and rebuild their lives. Please follow the example set by [Correctional Facility] Director [Becky] Scott and Commissioner O’Dea to push for implementation of this program statewide,” King said.
The group as a whole said in a statement that this policy would mitigate economic burden, reduce the threat of re-incarceration, and reduce the amount of time people have to spend in court post-incarceration.