NJ Gets Rid Of Public Defender Fees With New Law

By George Woolston | July 3, 2023, 3:36 PM EDT ·

New Jersey residents will no longer have to pay fees, liens and warrants issued for public defender services in the state, thanks to a bill newly signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy.

The legislation, A5587/S3771, eliminates all public defender fees, as well as any unpaid civil judgments, property liens and warrants issued for unpaid balances associated with services from the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender, regardless of whether the clients were found guilty. Gov. Murphy signed it into law Friday.

A total of $4 million has been allocated to fund the law's implementation in the state's 2024 budget, which also was signed into law Friday. The budget also funds a Parole Revocation Defense Unit and increases pay rates for attorneys assisting the Office of the Public Defender.

"For too long, we have witnessed many residents suffer from the steep prices of a public defender, many times causing them to go into debt just to cover their legal fees, and disproportionately affecting people of color. The elimination of these fees gives them the chance to defend themselves against charges without worry of their finances," Gov. Murphy said in a statement announcing his signing of the legislation.

The effort to end public-defender fees was led by the state's Wealth Disparity Task Force, which Gov. Murphy formed in 2021 in an effort to eliminate wealth gaps based on race and ethnicity, according to the governor's office.

Marleina Ubel, a policy analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective and author of a 2022 report detailing the high cost of "free" legal representation, called the new law a "huge win."

"With this new law, New Jersey is one step closer to ensuring that justice is accessible to all, regardless of their socioeconomic status," Ubel said in a statement.

Before the new law, public defender clients were assessed fees that started at $150 and escalated based on a number of factors, according to the governor's office.

Joseph E. Krakora, public defender for the state of New Jersey, also praised the new legislation.

"The imposition of these fees has long been a burden on our indigent clients," Krakora said in a statement, adding that the legislation will be especially helpful to people looking to get back on their feet after a run-in with the criminal justice system.

New York and Pennsylvania also have eliminated public defender fees, according to Yannick Wood, director of the Criminal Justice Reform Program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

"Funding free public defender services is a necessary step to eliminating a two-tiered justice system which unfairly saddles those lacking financial resources with debt and liens," Wood said in a statement.

--Editing by Amy French.

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