Gov. Chris Christie on Monday conditionally vetoed legislation that would have allowed first-time defendants facing charges in municipal court to participate in a conditional discharge program, similar to the Superior Court’s pretrial intervention program.
Christie said he agreed with the idea in concept but disagreed with the proposed fees. The bill would have charged participants in municipal court conditional-discharge programs $500, and increased fees for existing programs from $75 to $350.
The legislation is “forward thinking” but the costs are unjustified, he said.
“Every new fee or fee increase imposed in support of a government program places a new financial burden on our citizens,” he said. “I am unwilling to limit access to meaningful and necessary alternatives to traditional criminal justice adjudication to only those able to pay steep costs and increased fees.”
He recommended reducing the fee charged for a municipal court fee to $75 and eliminating the proposed increase for existing programs.
The bill, A-3096, unanimously passed both houses of the Legislature.
The sponsors, Assemblymen Reed Gusciora, D-Mercer, and Jon Bramnick, R-Union, did not immediately return telephone calls.
Also on Monday, the Assembly Judiciary Committee passed, over the judiciary’s objections, a measure that would allow municipal court judges to impose community service rather than fines.
Under current law, a judge can order community service after determining that a person convicted of a municipal court offense cannot afford to pay the fine or has defaulted on the fine.
Daniel Phillips, the legislative liaison for the Administrative Office of the Courts, unsuccessfully lobbied the committee to kill the measure, saying it would be too costly to manage and could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.
“Ninety percent of people [facing municipal court charges] just pay their fine and go away, and there is no obligation on the court to follow up,” said Phillips.
The AOC administers all community service sentences, regardless of whether they are handed down by Superior Court or municipal court judges, he said. At present, the AOC supervises about 5,000 community service sentences per year. The bill’s enactment would mean the AOC could be forced to handle thousands more without any increase in funding, said Phillips.
The big hit, he said, could be fiscal since the state and local governments take in approximately $500 million a year in municipal court fines. That amount could be jeopardized if municipal court judges start deciding to impose community service sentences based solely on a defendant’s request.
Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, R-Morris, said the Supreme Court chief justice could, at some point in the future, “issue an edict” prohibiting the wholesale granting of community service sentences if there is a fiscal impact. “He can say, ‘Don’t do this unless it’s absolutely positively necessary,’” said Carroll. “Plus, I find it hard to imagine that people are going to say, ‘Put me to work six, eight, 10 hours a day for a week’ rather than pay a fine.”
Added Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Essex: “I think your testimony paints a picture that will not happen from a practical perspective.”
The bill, A-3254, is sponsored by Assemblyman Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex. It has an identical companion in the Senate, S-2309, but it has not been assigned to a committee.