New Jersey mulling paying your debt with service, not money

Some New Jersey towns say they have had trouble collecting fines for minor crimes.  An Assembly committee has advanced legislation that would give municipal court judges the discretion to order community service instead.

Current law allows municipal judges to consider the community service option only after offenders fail to pay their fines. A bill sponsored by Assemblyman Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge), would give judges the flexibility to consider a person’s financial standing before imposing a penalty.

Coughlin says some people can’t afford to pay the fines and end up spending a weekend or more in jail for minor offenses.

“We don’t have debtors prisons. We shouldn’t put people in jail for a debt,” said Coughlin.  “Let them go off and do something. It’s certainly a punishment, harsh requirements to be there on time to perform all the services. I think it’s a better fairer way of addressing the situation.”

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Coughlin is a former prosecutor and municipal judge. He says the measure will also help courts process cases more quickly.

“Courts can often have a huge backlog of outstanding fines which frankly you know you’re never going to collect,” he said. “So let’s get rid of that. Let’s not do that. Let’s put people out and do something good. Let them clean up the community. Let them eliminate graffiti. Let them do those kind of things.”

Coughlin says giving judges the flexibility to consider an offender’s financial standing before handing down a sentence will help save the local legal system time and money in the long run.

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