Governing: Like many other rural jurisdictions, towns in south Georgia have suffered decades of a slow economic decline that’s left them without much of a tax base. But they see a large amount of through-traffic from semi-trucks and Florida-bound tourists. And they’ve grown reliant on ticketing them to meet their expenses. “Georgia is a classic example of a place where you have these inextricable ties between the police, the town and the court,” says Lisa Foster, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “Any city that’s short on revenue is going to be tempted to use the judicial system.”
… in hundreds of jurisdictions throughout the country, fines are used to fund a significant portion of the budget…In some extreme cases, local budgets are funded almost exclusively by fines. Georgetown, La., a village of fewer than 500 residents, was the most reliant on fines of all reviewed nationally. Its 2018 financial statement reported nearly $500,000 in fines, accounting for 92 percent of general revenues. Not far behind is Fenton, La., which reported more than $1.2 million in fines, or 91 percent of 2017 general fund revenues.
In To Serve and Collect (forthcoming Journal of Legal Studies) Makowsky, Stratmann and myself find that the allure of fine and forfeiture revenue can distort policing by shifting arrests towards crimes and misdemeanors with greater potential for revenue rather than greater social harm.
There is, however, some good news. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution’s ban on excessive fines applies to states and localities and that is putting pressure of them to reform. My co-author Mike Makowsky has a good suggestion:
The way governments allocate fine revenue also matters. The majority deposit it into their general fund, but many in Oklahoma, for example, route the money to separate police or public safety funds. That’s a mistake, says Michael Makowsky, an economics professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. “You want to separate officer incentives from the revenues they generate,” he says. One solution he proposes is to route fines and fees to state governments. States would then redistribute all the funds back as block grants based on population or other metrics, effectively removing incentives to issue tickets.
The Governing report is good and links to more data.