Skip to content

New Jersey Should Stop Charging Fees for Indigent Defense

In an oped published in NJ​.com, Arnold Ventures Directors of Criminal Justice Cybele Kotonias and Rebecca Silber point to a solution in Gov. Murphy’s budget.

The U.S. Supreme Court has long held that individuals have a right to counsel regardless of their ability to pay, but the state of New Jersey still charges fees to the roughly 50,000 indigent people each year who rely upon the state’s public defenders. 

This is a problem that Gov. Phil Murphy is taking seriously by including a proposal to cover these fees out of the general budget, Cybele Kotonias and Rebecca Silber, directors of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures, write in an oped published this week on NJ​.com.

Eliminating indigent defense fees will, for a small price to the state, put an end to the cycles of debt that trap people and make it impossible for them to get back on their feet,” Kotonias and Silber write. 

As they explain in their oped, these fees leave individuals on the hook for thousands of dollars in defense fees, whether they’re guilty or innocent, incentivizing them to enter plea bargains that may be against their best interest – even affecting people who would otherwise be acquitted at trial. 

These sorts of court fees end up saddling individuals with an unnecessary financial burden without any benefit to public safety. Research finds that court fees often lead former defendants back into court either on new charges or debt collection proceedings. 

And in the end, New Jersey’s fee system does little to raise funds to support public defenders or courtroom services – collecting only $4 million per year. 

This oped builds on AV’s past work to remedy unfair fees in New Jersey. 

In 2020, Arnold Ventures, where we work, supported Rutgers Law School’s Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic, along with the Juvenile Law Center and the Debt Free Justice campaign, to eliminate fines and fees for juveniles, including defense fees.” 

Read the entire oped here: Defense attorneys should be free for the poor