Commentary: Policing for profit must end

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Why has there been a history of conflict between local communities and the police hired to protect them?

One big factor was exposed after the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., at the hands of police.

A key reason Ferguson police were despised is that the politicians had turned the police into tax collectors for the city. Not sales taxes and income taxes, but fines, fees, forfeitures and traffic tickets.

The reports released by the Department of Justice and the Commission on Civil Rights confirmed that officers’ primary use of arrests and tickets were not for public safety, but as revenue generators.

Not stopping law breaking, but profiting from it.

By 2013, one-fifth of the municipal operating budget of Ferguson came from court fine collections. It increased ticketing, and the city’s municipal court issued 32,975 arrest warrants in 2013 for a city of only 21,135 residents. The city’s budget reached roughly $13 million, with the amount coming from citations, fines and forfeitures jumping to about $2.5 million. In other words, the share of the city’s operating budget coming from those fines and fees spiked from 13% in 2011 to 20% in 2013.

Since the report, Missouri passed legislation limiting fines, fees and court costs to a total of $300 and preventing cities from jailing people simply because they couldn’t pay. Missouri also passed legislation lowering the cap on the percentage of a city’s budget that could come from fines and fees from 30% to 20%.

Missouri state Rep. Robert Cornejo shepherded the legislation, which initially pushed for a 12.5% cap statewide, saying, “If you want to provide services to your taxpayers, then you need to be willing to go to your taxpayers and ask if they’re willing to pay for those services, and not just rely on catching people driving through your municipalities.”

While a cap of 20% on the percentage of budget that can come from fines and fees is better than 30%, it is not good enough. Percentages are floating dollar totals. The result still allows local governments to increase fines and fees revenue accordingly to compensate for budget increases.

Not only is it wrong to potentially ruin someone’s life over small infractions but pursuing an individual can oftentimes cost the government more money as they waste resources on people who pose no threat to the community. The Brennan Center analyzed counties in New Mexico and Texas, finding they spent “41 cents of every dollar of revenue they raise from fees and fines on in-court hearings.”

Chicago has experienced similar difficulties with excessive ticketing and suspension of driver’s licenses over fines and fees. An outdated city sticker came with a $200 penalty and a person could receive a ticket for the same offense multiple times in one day. In February 2018 a Chicago Jobs Council report found that of survey respondents with non-driving-related suspensions, 72% reported owing more than $500, and 31% owed over $3,000 before it was possible to get a valid license. For many residents, setting up a payment plan was impossible due to initial payment requirements reaching as high as $1,000 and would instead file bankruptcy.

In September 2019, Chicago finally addressed the issue by stopping the practice of suspending licenses for unpaid parking and vehicle compliance tickets; issuing payment plans that start between $35 and $50 instead of $1,000; and ending same-day or consecutive day ticketing for license plate registration or city stickers being expired. Chicago and Illinois as a whole have a ways to go, but these are important steps toward ending the subversive practice of using police as tax collectors, which leads to increased criminalization, targeting of minorities and the breakdown of community relationships.

“The imposition of fines and fees on poor people and minorities as a method of revenue generation is a major component of mass incarceration,” said Myesha Braden, director of the Criminal Justice Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “The harmful results of this practice, including the incarceration of individuals for no other reason than their poverty, undermines the basic principle of our criminal justice system — equal justice for all.”

But this tendency of cities to derive a substantial portion of their annual revenue from citations and fines handed out by law enforcement agencies is poison nationwide. Access to courts and due process should not depend on race or income, and court-imposed financial penalties should consider a person’s ability to pay.

California faced similar issues with fees for falling behind on parking tickets, which often result in a suspended driver’s license. On top of a $100 base fine for a suspended license, the state tacks on 10 fees, including a state penalty assessment ($100), court operations assessment ($40) and DNA fund ($50). The real cost of a suspended license, then, comes to $490. And if you can’t afford that? In the end, the fees for failing to appear or pay on time amount to $815.

California responded by implementing a Traffic Amnesty Program in 2015 spearheaded by state Senate Majority Leader Robert Hertzberg. After the 18-month amnesty window closed, they found that 255,306 amnesty cases had been resolved, 246,300 driver’s license reinstatement requests were submitted to the DMV by courts, and over $30 million in net revenue was collected.

In 2017, as a result of the program’s success, California ended the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees and found an 8.9% increase in payments, demonstrating that revoking a person’s ability to get to work and opening them up to criminal liability for driving on a suspended license is truly counterproductive.

States and localities must put an end to this modern version of debtors’ prison where centuries ago men and women who fell into debt would be imprisoned until they paid their debts. How were these unfortunates expected to come up with the money to pay their debts?

In modern America, how do we expect anyone to earn money to pay for traffic fines if one is under effective house arrest and unable to drive a car to work?



Grover Norquist is president of Americans for Tax Reform.


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