But Jones is just one person in one place. Summons taxation is entrenched in too many jurisdictions in the United States. As we saw in Ferguson, Missouri, where fines and court fees, largely related to traffic, have been a major source of city revenue in recent years, local governments have been using fines and fees
unchecked for decades.
Throughout the United States, criminal justice policy and tax policy are two sides of the same coin. Relying on crime to keep revenue flowing is an implicit gamble against public safety: if crime goes down, so does revenue. TO Government Magazine Report 2019
found that fines and forfeitures account for more than 10% of general fund revenue in nearly 600 jurisdictions. The worst offenders were places whose residents could least afford it: jurisdictions where fines represented more than 20% of general fund revenue had a median household income of less than $40,000.
Since the abusive police and collection practices of Ferguson, Missouri, it came to light
several years ago, it became clear that this is Not only
a Ferguson problem. In California, traffic tickets that used to cost $100 are now closer to $500
. Doraville, Georgia, a town with a population of just over 10,000, hosted an average of $3 million
one year of fines and fees. and Washington, D.C. issued $1 billion
on traffic and parking tickets for three years.
When someone can’t pay right away, draconian collections and enforcement practices trap families in a cycle of punishment that is nearly impossible to escape. Turning law enforcement into armed debt collectors further erodes trust between the community and law enforcement.
This illegal for the courts
to sentence people to jail in the US when a person can’t pay their debt, but in practice, people are jailed every day for unpaid fines and fees. In 2018, the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, where one of us works, worked with social service providers across Alabama. to survey nearly 1,000 people
who had criminal justice debts or routinely helped others pay them.
Shockingly, among surveyed Alabamians with criminal justice debt, nearly 50% were incarcerated because they couldn’t keep up with their payments. To avoid jail, many respondents had to make desperate decisions: 83% chose not to pay for basic needs like rent, utilities, or medicine; 44% took out a high-cost payday loan; and 38% turned to crime to get the money they needed to stay out of jail, most often selling drugs, stealing or doing sex work.
Ending for-profit policing requires policy change, both in Brookside and in cities large and small across the country. To prevent predatory policing, hold police and courts accountable for their behavior, and mitigate the damage caused by excessive fines and taxes, we must separate criminal justice policy from fiscal policy.
we can start with eliminating criminal justice fees
, which are a tremendously regressive tax. While the fines are intended to hold people accountable, the Main purpose
of legal fees and costs is to generate revenue to support basic government operations.
States should also require that all fines and fees be remitted to the state’s general fund and reallocated to cities based on need, not based on how much ticket revenue they collect. This removes the direct incentive to make unnecessary or questionable stops as an alternative measure to increase revenue, while leaving local governments free to prioritize public safety needs.
Other than that, lawmakers should limit the percentage of a city budget that can come from for-profit surveillance. Half of Brookside’s total budget came from fines and seizures
, according to AL.com. While the caps don’t completely unravel policing from revenue, they do raise guardrails to prevent the abuses highlighted in Brookside and similar jurisdictions across the country.
At a minimum, states should develop standards for police and municipal court operations. These should include the collection and public reporting of traffic stop data to monitor the demographics of who is being stopped and for what, who is being convicted of what crimes, and how they are being punished.
And, finally, states must take immediate steps to mitigate the harms of the current system by removing harsh penalties for nonpayment, such as late fees and driver’s license suspensions
that fall disproportionately on low-income people who can no longer pay their fines and fees.
Any municipality that relies on fines and fees to fund basic government services could become the next Brookside. Rooting out the corruption and venality of a town does not get to the root of the problem: using fines and fees as a hidden tax. Only policy change can do that. Policymakers must commit to reining in the perverse incentives that encourage predatory policing. Justice demands it.