A recent graduate of the Rutgers Law School will spend the next year investigating whether New Jersey's municipal courts raise revenue on the backs of poor people.
Alexi Velez '15 will work in Newark with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey as part of the law school's Maida Public Interest Fellows Program. James Maida, a 1990 graduate of the Rutgers Law School in Camden, and his wife Sharon made a $1 million gift to the law school in 2015 to support pro bono and public interest initiatives.
As the 2016-17 Maida Post-graduate fellow, Velez will research practices at the approximately 530 municipal courts in New Jersey through in-person observation, public records requests and interviews with judges, lawyers and court personnel to gather data on the number and demographics of people charged with municipal offenses. She will investigate what offenses bring people to municipal court, the legal process participants experience there, and what consequences follow municipal court judgments, including warrants, fines and imprisonment. Velez will also interview low-income people charged in municipal court in order to understand the impact of charges and judgments on their lives.
New Jersey's municipal courts handle six million cases or controversies each year. "This is how most New Jersey residents engage with the judiciary," Velez says. Many see municipal court fines "as the cost of doing business or more of an annoyance," but for people living below the poverty line, the consequences of municipal court penalties can be devastating. "Those charged with minor offenses sometimes suffer crippling debt and other collateral consequences, such as the loss of employment, housing or public benefits, and may even face incarceration."
In its scathing investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, released in March 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice blasted Ferguson's municipal court practices, saying that "the municipal court does not act as a neutral arbiter of the law or a check on unlawful police conduct. Instead, the court primarily uses its judicial authority as the means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the City's financial interests."
In Ferguson, the Department of Justice found "court practices that violate the Fourteenth Amendment's due process and equal protection requirements. The court's practices also impose unnecessary harm, overwhelmingly on African-American individuals, and run counter to public safety." In looking at 9,000 warrants issued in 2013, 92 percent were issued in cases involving black defendants.
Here in New Jersey, nearly 11 percent of residents live below the poverty line. And according to Velez, "the correlation between race and poverty in New Jersey is extreme: 22 percent of black residents and 24 percent of Latino residents live in poverty, compared with only five percent of white residents."
"Around the country, municipalities are raising revenue on the backs of poor people, imposing fines and court fees for minor infractions and jailing people who cannot afford to pay," Velez says. "These revenue-building strategies disproportionately affect people of color."
For Velez, the "best possible scenario would be to go into municipal courts and observe that everything is aboveboard." But if that is not the case, she will produce a report on the scope of the problem in New Jersey and a litigation strategy to combat it. Velez, a public interest leader during her tenure as a law student, plans to engage law students from the Camden and Newark campuses of the Law School in her research.
Velez, a first-generation college student who never anticipated a legal career until shortly before entering law school, is currently completing a clerkship with the New Jersey Appellate Division.
Her fellowship will run from September 2016 to August 2017. In addition to the post-graduate fellowship, which funds the full-time salary of a selected fellow working in the public interest, the Maida gift also provides funding for up to 40 students each summer to work for public interest legal organizations in positions that are normally unpaid.