Funding government by fines and penalties

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, I used to talk about rural justices of the peace whose incomes were drawn from the fines they levied.  You can’t have impartial justice when your judge as a financial incentive to find you guilty.  But I thought of this as an anachronism that soon would fade away.

I was wrong.  Fines, fees and confiscations have become an important source of governmental revenue.  Alex Tabarrok, an economist and blogger, came across a report by Arch City Defenders, a non-profit legal defense organization in the St. Louis area, that cites Ferguson as a prime example.  (Arch City’s words are in italics and Tabarrok’s in bold.)

Ferguson is a city located in northern St. Louis County with 21,203 residents living in 8,192 households. The majority 67% of residents are African-American…22% of residents live below the poverty level.

Fergusoncourthouse…Despite Ferguson’s relative poverty, fines and court fees comprise the second largest source of revenue for the city, a total of $2,635,400. In 2013, the Ferguson Municipal Court disposed of 24,532 warrants and 12,018 cases, or about 3 warrants and 1.5 cases per household.

You don’t get $321 in fines and fees and 3 warrants per household from an about-average crime rate. You get numbers like this from bullshit arrests for jaywalking and constant “low level harassment involving traffic stops, court appearances, high fines, and the threat of jail for failure to pay.”

If you have money, for example, you can easily get a speeding ticket converted to a non-moving violation. But if you don’t have money it’s often the start of a downward spiral that is hard to pull out of.

For a simple speeding ticket, an attorney is paid $50-$100, the municipality is paid $150-$200 in fines and court costs, and the defendant avoids points on his or her license as well as a possible increase in insurance costs. For simple cases, neither the attorney nor the defendant must appear in court.

However, if you do not have the ability to hire an attorney or pay fines, you do not get the benefit of the amendment, you are assessed points, your license risks suspension and you still owe the municipality money you cannot afford….If you cannot pay the amount in full, you must appear in court on that night to explain why. If you miss court, a warrant will likely be issued for your arrest.

People who are arrested on a warrant for failure to appear in court to pay the fines frequently sit in jail for an extended period.  None of the municipalities has court on a daily basis and some courts meet only once per month.  If you are arrested on a warrant in one of these jurisdictions and are unable to pay the bond, you may spend as much as three weeks in jail waiting to see a judge.

Of course, if you are arrested and jailed you will probably lose your job and perhaps also your apartment–all because of a speeding ticket.

Arch City Defenders said motorists who drive through Ferguson are subject to the usual “driving while black” stops.  White people are 29 percent of Ferguson’s population (the percentage driving through would presumably be higher), but account for only 12.7 percent of stops by police.   Black drivers are twice as likely as white to be searched and twice as likely to be arrested, but fraction of white drivers with contraband, such as illegal drugs, is 50 percent higher than the fraction of blacks.

There are little quirks in the court system that mutiply the fines and penalties.  Courthouse doors are locked five minutes after the courts are scheduled to begin their sessions, so if a defendant is a little bit late, he or she will be locked out and fined for failing to appear for trial.   The public is excluded from trial proceedings, so somebody without child care available can be fined for child neglect if they leave their children outside.

In fairness to the good people of St. Louis County, Arch City Defenders found fault with only about 30 or so of the 60 court systems it observed, and only two others were as bad as Ferguson’s.  Even so, I don’t think Ferguson is unique.   Use of fines, penalties and confiscations to finance government, especially police, is increasing across the USA.   Increasingly state governments increasingly get big chunks of revenue from corporate settlements.

 LINKS

Ferguson and the Modern Debtors’ Prison by Alex Tabarrok for Marginal Revolution

Municipal Courts White Paper by Arch City Defenders.   The report is short and worth reading as a whole.

Get Out of Jail Inc. by Sarah Stillman for The New Yorker

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One Response to “Funding government by fines and penalties”

  1. tiffany267 Says:

    I concur!

    Let me speak personally to the following:
    “However, if you do not have the ability to hire an attorney or pay fines, you do not get the benefit of the amendment, you are assessed points, your license risks suspension and you still owe the municipality money you cannot afford….If you cannot pay the amount in full, you must appear in court on that night to explain why. If you miss court, a warrant will likely be issued for your arrest.”

    I discovered first-hand that, where I live, practically any loss of control of a vehicle to which cops are called to the scene can legally result in a charge of “reckless driving” with potential fines up to $1000 or more and even jailtime. There is a lesser charge on the books, but police officers do not use it when writing tickets because the fines are much lower. It is basically reserved for plea bargains.

    I immediately hired an attorney to represent me. Of course, the law enforcement officers, the court officials, the judge, and the attorney were already well acquainted, and it was extremely easy for the attorney to see that my charges were basically dismissed and I paid only court costs to be seen by a judge and a fee for a so-called “driver improvement program” class. The State still made money off of me, but not nearly as easily as it did from the less fortunate defendants I saw in court that day who could not afford an attorney that was best friends with the government officials.

    I am convinced, even more so after my personal experience, that traffic law is principally a revenue-generating tool of the State, with “public safety” mainly rhetoric for propagandizing its programs.

    Like

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