Addicted to Fines

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.

Comments the local law enforcement & government are corrupt -- therefore we must enact even more laws/oversight to make the local lawmakers & enforcers do right and obey the existing laws ??

Makes no sense. How did these people get their jobs in the first place?
if there is obvious wrongdoing by local governments -- those government officials should be prosecuted directly... same as any other citizen.

But in America, police, prosecutors, judges, legislators, mayors, etc. are largely above the law -- no prosecutions, just administrative, cosmetic "fixes".

Power corrupts. Who watches the Watchers who watch the other Watchers?

Of course it makes sense. We're not talking about corruption in the sense of police taking bribes, for example, we're talking about local jurisdictions using existing law to fund government services through ticket revenues. The proposed change in law (sending traffic fine revenues to the state rather than keeping them locally) would stop this.

>But in America, police, prosecutors, judges, legislators, mayors, etc. are largely above the law

You spelled "But on Earth" wrong.

Now finish getting dressed, the school bus is coming soon!

Still beneficial for traffic fine revenues are speed limit reductions from state highway speeds to, say, 30 mph when entering a town or village.

Anecdotal, it seems that NYC, NY and Nassau County, NY have resolved the insufficient-traffic-fine-revenue crisis with red light cameras, and in NYC speed cameras for the (recently reduced) 25 mph city-wide speed limit.

More Brillianter!

In NYS, Fredo's thug brother is requiring every registered car owner to pony up $25 to buy new license plates, which he says are needed to be read by bridge toll, red light, and speed limit cameras.

Truly an offer they can't refuse.

The government should not be allowed to use fines of any kind. The money corrupts the government and is a disservice to the citizens.

And the Cuomo Gang plans to charge another $20 if you want to keep your current plate number

"How did these people get their jobs in the first place?"

By taxing outsiders!

Only the local poor and powerless get hit with fines, but that is mostly to keep the boot on their neck, not to raise revenue. Revenue comes from those passing through in expensive vehicles which means they can pay cash quickly, or the vehicle can be seized and held for ransom or sold for cash.

I live in NH where the State is more market oriented, charging rents on nature (meals and rooms taxes on mostly out of State tourists, high taxes on vacation homes getting few services), government profits on sin (State liquor stores, lotteries) sold at lower prices, promoting sales tax dodging to increase business tax revenue from non-residents.

I was under the impression that speed trap towns had been outlawed, but I guess this varies by state. E.g. Arkansas had passed a state law against speed traps:

But there is a clever way to get around such laws, at least if memory serves. When going on I85 at about 70mph in the later 80s, the Spartanburg SC police handled me a reasonable ticket - something like 15 or 20 dollars. The court fee was 115 dollars however, and I believe needed to be paid regardless of whether one was guilty or innocent.

This was truly an example of how to use the judicial system, as courts generally have wide latitude to determine their own cost schedules.

Yes, I have gotten two speeding tickets over the past ten or so years, one in Virginia, one in Tennessee. Both had that same bullshit--$100 or something for the fine, with roughly the same amount again for a "court processing fee."

I suspect it's pretty widespread.

Tiny jurisdictions and relatively small amounts of money. No allegation that the individual tickets are unusually large. No allegation of fraud or improper profiling in the enforcement. The Eighth Amendment reference is spurious; AFAIK it's never been held to apply on anything other than an individual basis, and it says nothing about a locality's revenue mix. The irritation inflicted on through travelers is purely an issue of political power, and nothing about these numbers in and of themselves persuades me as to whose views of the greater social harm should govern enforcement priorities.

'Tiny jurisdictions and relatively small amounts of money'

One of the more striking aspects of the Spartanburg ticket mentioned above was how large and well equiped the police were - several late model Mustangs, and enough personnel to pull over 8-10 cars at a time. This was larger than any VA or MD State Police operation I had ever seen on I95, and seemed to be utterly routine. And likely quite profitable.

'No allegation that the individual tickets are unusually large.'

See above - court fees are where the money is, at least using Spartanburg as an example.

Besides, they're probably Black.

If I gently put a fist-sized stone on your chest, it's not going to be a problem. You can breath fine, you can move it if you wish, you can ignore it if you wish.

So I suppose, given that a stone isn't a problem, you'd have no concerns piling a heap of stones on top of you. I mean, no individual stone is more than a few pounds, right? So it's all good!

The "you" in your analogy doesn't correspond to anyone in the actual situation described, however.

I quite strongly disagree. Even if no individual is hit with excessive fines, the aggregate effect of using fines to fund government is to turn the public against the police and the police against the public.

When people realize that the majority of interactions they have with cops result in them getting fined, they become hostile to police. No one likes to be fleeced. And when the majority of official interactions cops have with non-cops involve obtaining money from the non-cops, it taints the view cops have of even close friends and relatives not on the police force.

It's not the fines that are the issue--it's the way police interact with the public. Right now, many interactions are frankly predatory.

Heinrich von Kleist's "Michael Kohlhaas" shows what can happen when authorities pull their crap on the wrong guy.

Big jurisdictions impose fines for goods traveling from China,


The Chinese will pay for it.

do corporations pay taxes or do customers pay Chinese tariffs?

The Chinese will pay for it and the Wall.

I frequently travel in Georgia on Interstate 95. Some counties station several patrol cars full-time on the interstate, issuing speeding tickets to unsuspecting travelers. But ticketing is the lesser evil to civil asset forfeiture. It's a common sight: a stopped car, its passengers standing outside the car, the local officers searching the car for contraband or anything else that might be cause for suspecting criminal activity. The officers then seize the car and its contents, while the passengers may or may not be charged with an offense. Of course, the profile of the passengers is almost always the same.

It's actually an improvement from the experiences of travelers through rural Georgia before the interstate was built. Back then there weren't the hundreds of witnesses who can see the local law enforcement conduct in plain sight on the interstate. Speeders, real or just imagined, were arrested and taken to "jail" (usually just a storefront). Once at the jail, they could pay the fine and be released or were held until an appearance before the local judge. Most simply paid the fine. If the alleged offender didn't have sufficient cash (no checks and credit cards were still a novelty) with him, cash sent via Western Union was the standard practice. Waiting for the Western Union receipt seemed like an eternity. I know from personal experience. The fines were large: several hundred dollars. In the 1960s, several hundred dollars was a significant sum. Mother, God bless her, sent the money, and I was on my way. A little shaken by the experience, and henceforth driving less than the speed limit. But at least back then civil asset forfeiture was not yet a thing.

There I was. July 2017, we were returning from Indianapolis after visiting the grandchildren.

The wife was pulled over on an interstate by an Ohio state trooper for doing 90 in a 65 zone. She insists everyone else was.

You should have seen the look on the trooper's face when he saw Grandma in the driver's seat. The fine was about $130. He could have locked her up - wrote 83 mph on the ticket. I wasn't going to make her bail.

Re. Rayward's point concerning asset forfeiture in Georgia, with its racist aspect: That's not the only part of the world where that sort of thing takes place.

An acquaintance of mine, dark-hared and dark-complected and with a Spanish surname, was driving across the Texas panhandle. As he entered Texas, a Sherman County sheriff's deputy pulled out of the state-line rest stop and followed him close for eight or ten miles to the first town. At this point, the highway changed from two lanes to four; my friend went into the right lane; and the cop hit the flashers, on the grounds that my friend had changed lanes without signaling.

The cop, a blonde guy with a vaguely Germanic surname, then changed the subject. "How much money are you carrying? That's all? How do you travel interstate with so little cash?" and so on. It was pretty clear that he hoped to learn that my friend was carrying a goodly wad of cash, which could be subjected to civil forfeiture for the benefit of Sherman County law enforcement.

Pretty clear evidence of racism, no? Master-race cop subverting the mechanisms of justice to go after a member of a despised minority, while the vast majority of the public pretends that race really isn't an issue in such affairs.

Only thing was, I switched the ethnicities of cop and traveler in my story. The cop had the Latino features and the Spanish surname; the traveler was the blonde guy of Central European descent.

So, is that still clear and incontrovertible evidence of racism? Was the minion of the law flagrantly displaying his hatred of gabachos? Is anti-Anglo sentiment an institutional problem in the Sherman County sheriff's department?

Or could it be that race is a side issues—that the real problem isn't white vs. black or white vs. brown, but blue vs. civilian? I suspect that too many people are exercising confirmation bias, seizing upon anecdotes of white cops abusing non-whites as evidence of institutional racism, and ignoring POC-abusing-white and POC-abusing-POC cases that don't support their picture of a fundamentally racist society.

There's plenty of reason to believe there is lingering racism in American society besides just anecdotal stories about racist cops.

There are racist cops in the world, and there are inherently-corrupting fine-farming operations run by the police in the world. Those are two different bad things, which surely must overlap some of the time, but which are mainly independently bad. Racial conflicts gets attention (tweets, clicks, eyeballs), so it's natural to toss the racial element into a discussion of these fine-farming schemes, but it's kind of a derail most of the time. It doesn't make things any better if the policeman stealing your cash via civil forfeiture is the same race as you are.

There's plenty of reason to believe there is lingering racism in American society besides just anecdotal stories about racist cops.

There's plenty of reason to believe you haven't a clue because you're on the spectrum. One of your more colorful interventions was your vociferous admiration for...Rachel Dolezal.

That's pretty f*cking rude. Who died and made you King Asshole?

How the Unchecked Power of Judges Is Hurting Poor Texans

Can’t afford a lawyer? Don’t expect justice.

Texas is also the place that keeps executing people for crap "arson investigations."

Lose family in a fire (started by faulty wiring - good thing there were few "regulations" on that) and then get killed because some half trained asshole smells "accelerant."

Texas is also the place that keeps executing people for crap "arson investigations."

No, minions of Pro-Publica claim they executed Cameron Todd Willingham consequent to a 'crap' investigation. And the academicians they consulted contra the local fire department merely offered the assessment that there were alternative explanations for the origins of the fire and alternative explanations for the evidence of flammable liquid found. (They did not deny that there was evidence of flammable liquid). N.B. Gov. Perry had no authority to commute Willingham's sentence. He could only issue 30 day stays. Any pardon would have to be recommended by the state board of pardons, and they weren't recommending a pardon.

The Pro-Publica minions also attempted to make it sound as if Gov. Perry had canned members of the state forensics commission in order to ensure a favorable opinion on disputed questions in re the Willingham case. The truth was that their terms had just expired and they were replaced with new commissioners, which is what commonly happens when your term expires.

Classic. Yet another case of looking for a liberal outlet reporting a fact, and rejecting a fact on that basis.

It was the Texas state review that found fault.

From the wife:

"Todd murdered Amber, Karmon, and Kameron. He burnt them. He admitted he burnt them to me, and he was convicted for his crime. That is the closest to justice that my daughters will ever get."

But that never mattered to you, did it? Nah.

Spin spin spin. The wheel of lies.

The wife. So much for Listen to the Woman. Jesus Christ you libs are emotionally unstable and incapable of dispassionate rational thought.

You disgust me.

"Todd murdered Amber, Karmon, and Kameron. He burnt them. He admitted he burnt them to me, and he was convicted for his crime. That is the closest to justice that my daughters will ever get."

The wife’s statement. For any libs that remember they’re supposed to give a shit.

I see whinging about this is what you do when you're bored with the futureworld chatter about Charter Cities. Fines and forfeitures are a tiny fraction of all public revenue and if you summed the population of all villages in this country with populations between 200 and 2,400, you'd encompass maybe 2-3% of the national population.

A more salient problem would be diseconomies of scale from excessive fragmentation in the realm of local government, assignment of functions to inapposite levels of government, suboptimal local government boundaries, and a crazy-quilt system of inter-governmental transfers. Other countries manage to finesse these problems, but our politicians are hopeless.

Not 'diseconomies of scale' but failure to take advantage of economies of scale.

Ah, redistribution! The natural and inevitable panacea, according to leftists, crony capitalists, and other criminals. Because the Russian, Chinese, and all other national governments are all-wise.

You realize that this was in the South?

The unlovely exurb of Haymarket VA is one big speed trap. But there's more than just the fine. Next time you pay your insurance you may notice a bump up in the rates.

Fines are a dumb way for government to get money. In the traffic fine case, the caused their citizens' insurance rates to go up. That is money the citizen could have spent in a local business, generating some sales tax. It also hurts the poor disproportionately. $100 is a lot of money to many people.

If instead the jurisdiction raised property or income tax, that amount would be deductible on federal tax forms. (A problem is that the local jurisdiction may not be able to raise those taxes - it's often a county or state revenue collector.)

All of Montgomery County, MD is a speed trap.

Fortunately, traffic laws are somewhat better enforced in Montgomery County than on most other places in the United States. If you are breaking the law, you should receive a ticket every time that you speed.

Yet, in the hated, slandered, maligned Brazil, the problem was solved. The President, Captain Bolsonaro, has ordered the abolition of the so-called fines industry. That is what takes: political will and cojones!

I think there is much to be said for a brave, decisive leadership such as President Captain Bolsonaro's. It would be great if American public officials were so publuc-spirited as he is. I have read he is a special operations guy and he is tough as nails.

I mean, right?

He's dreamy. He can slip it in my wife any time!

I think that is the impersonator.

How can you tell?

The difference of styles is obvious to any honest observer, I think.

The Wall Street Journal has officially decided to support Mr. Bolsonaro. Brazil has risen again.

for the victim of one of these traps, the fines is only the tip of the iceberg. Most insurers raise rates on recipients of moving violations for years after the event.

That's taking Pigou to the next level

The American fetish for "local control" is one of the worst things about the country, and leads to so many terrible outcomes.

Police should be run at the state level. Fines and fees should be collected at the state level. Municipal governments should generally have much less power than they do now. They should be in charge of things like water distribution, waste collection, and construction of local bridges, and should have much more limited powers of taxation than they currently do. Centralise it, baby!

(Also, most metropolitan areas should be merged into a single municipal government. The "suburbs" Ponzi scheme has got to be stopped.)

It's an interesting question. Having variability allows experimentation and comparative studies. But it also burdens businesses with "local compliance." For instance, the Tax Foundation claims that there are 9,998 different sales tax jurisdictions in the United States, Obviously that's a lot harder for your online seller of hot sauce to deal with than just one. Say 10%, divided in some way between federal state and local jurisdictions.

Anyway, what would "just one" sales tax or VAT system do to retail productivity?

The attributes of suburbs that make them Ponzi schemes are..

I see you fancy nonsensical statements meant to sound clever.

I’m asking why the commenter believes suburbs are Ponzi schemes. His words.

I'm sorry. Missed your ellipses.

The American fetish for "local control" is one of the worst things about the country, and leads to so many terrible outcomes. Police should be run at the state level.

There is no 'local control'. The crazy quilt of intergovernmental transfers, odious judicial decrees, and state legislation bind local governments like Gulliver.

No clue why you fancy state governments are the optimal locus of police services for places unlike Vermont. County police departments and multi-county police authorities would repair the problem we have with excess fragmentation in police services.

Related to the good suggestion: In one place I lived they would routinely turn moving violations into parking violations, since the money from parking violations stayed local but the money from moving violations went to the state.

True , and if its parking violations, people don't bother that much to contest since it doesn't affect Points for License or Insurance.
Federal way, WA near seattle is a classic example of this.

Here in the Empire State speeding tickets are a game. A coworker who moonlights as a town judge told me to never plead guilty to speeding ticket but appear before the judge in court. For speeding tickets all the revenue goes to the state but for parking violations the revenue remains local so the judge will reduce the fine to a parking violation, plus there are no points on one's license. Of course the price of the parking ticket may vary. Once I was fined $35.00 but 3-years ago the fine was the same as for a speeding ticket.

A friend who works for the state attorney-general's office (and had 10 years in private practice) tells me the bell curve for lay JPs is quite flat. The better ones are quite satisfactory. The lousy ones are horrible. A political theorist of my acquaintance told his students that if they wanted an experience of the Third World, spend an evening in the courtroom of the village JP. (That particular professor was one of the few Republicans at that institution).

Agree that fines should be paid to the general fund, not to the police assessing them. However, it's not obvious that "relying" on fines for general government expenses is worse than the alternative: collecting general taxes. After all, taxes are just fines that are assessed when one hasn't even been accused of doing anything wrong. (This principle is central to the constitutionality of Obamacare.) Whatever problems arise from using fines to fund large portions of government budgets, those problems are made even worse from using taxes.

The utility of fines, Pigou levies, and vice levies is that they discourage troublesome behavior. Ideally, they'd be paid into a holding fund maintained by the government issuing the citation. At the end of the year, the holding fund is emptied by small checks being cut to the direct taxpayers of the jurisdiction in question. State governments cut a check to every household which files a state income tax return, local governments to every household which files a property tax return. The point of the levy is properly to change relative prices rather than collect revenue.

For collecting revenue, tax real estate, tax final sales, tax value-added, tax income, tax real capital gains, tax gifts and bequests. Occasionally, assess tolls, fares, and fees. And don't incorporate any preferences which benefit one commercial and industrial sector over another.

Local pols always want to run on keeping taxes "stable" so to raise funds they need creative new fees, fines, anything that can't be called a tax. Skyrocketing water and sewer fees are a popular strategy.

There was some discussion of fines as local income at the time of the officer-involved-ballistic-mortality in Ferguson, MO.

Not only is there are there perverse incentives, and facilitation of theft by cops (CAF), there is also the resulting treadmill for poor people of additional fines for failure to pay, arrest warrants, etc.

Yes. The best way to organize your fine-farming operation is to make it a huge hassle to do anything other than pay the fine right away. This tends to also optimize for grinding poor people up in the gears of the machinery--you start with a bullshit $100 fine, and since you can't pay it, you get a bunch of extra fees added on, eventually ending up with getting locked up for a couple weeks and losing your job. All this is great for making the people who *can* pay willing to pay up, and what it does to poor people is a side effect.

This stuff is inherently corrupting. We should pass laws that collect all fine revenue and property seizures for the state general fund, and absolutely forbid any form of kickback to the local governments or police agencies involved.

Rather than spinning up new regulation and oversight, why not just pass state or federal law outlawing moving violations? Criminal negligence law covers the worst driving offenses and criminal and civil law for negligence should cover accidents.

We have a few towns like that near me in Florida. The state and I think AAA put up signs warning drivers. I have an idea about that that goes like this:

Early on the measure of speed by law enforcement was inaccurate so they let people drive up to at least 5 Mile per hour above the limit.
Over time the real law became posted limit + 5 miles above the posed limit is the real limit.
Drivers knew that and even the people who decided on the speed limits know it and acted accordingly.
The real law breakers are the town that ticket people for 1 mile over the limit to raise revenue.

Isn't this actually a very, very, very old practice for funding a local government? Extracting tolls from people passing through the territory?

Tolls and fines are two different animals. Tolls are known, published and apply to everyone. If they are too much then you can choose a different route.

In an ideal world they would be, but in medieval Europe? Pretty sure that Marco Polo didn't know what tolls his caravan would have to pay on the way to China. And the locals sure aren't going to give a shit about equal enforcement. Local travelers probably knew which toll collectors to bribe anyway.

He probably didn't know and I don't really know what the tolls are on many roads near me. Areas that attracted commerce, though, used regular tolls rather than random 'fines'.

I'm sure things were a bit 'ad hoc' in the days before computers, formal accounting and other innovations but the idea still holds.

Makowsky, Stratmann and _I_.

Treating the police department like some type of 'tax farmer' agency is how Ferguson ended up in riots. The interstates are built with the taxpayer's money from the entire country with the requirement that they do not have tolls. States that treat their interstates as indirect cash cows should be kicked out of the program. Towns that do so should be made to payback the portion of Federal dollars used to build them.

is how Ferguson ended up in riots.

All places end up in riots for one reason: the police allow them to riot. That was Gov. Nixon's preference. As for the tinder, it's quite easy to see that importing a mess of Section 8 beneficiaries without a commensurate increase in police manpower was the efficient agent, but liberals gotta have their lies to live by.

Could have also been the "hands up don't shoot" lie.

Bullshit to both.

Most communities do not have police forces on guard against riots or prepared to quickly deploy if one happens. The reason riots are not breaking out 99% of the time is not that 99% of the time the police have an iron grip on the population anymore than 99% of the time forests are not on fire because we've blanketed the country with firefighters.

"Hands up don't shoot" is irrelevant to it as well. Most riots happen upon some story, rumor, legend or whatnot gets passed around. Almost always the immediate story turns out to be nowhere near what actually happened. It's not unusual for the underlying story to have never even happened at all in any form. The question is why is some ground fertile enough for a story to catch fire and grow when very often such stories lead to anything?

Because the story that spread made sense. Many of the residents could easily see how "hands up don't shoot" could have easily happened. Why did that happen? Because cops were used as tax farmers to close budget gaps by tossing fines and charges at people rather than as professionals at public safety. This was all in the reports that came out afterwards all spelled out in great detail.

Look, maybe you misunderstand the purpose of the comments section. It's not a place for thinking and reasoned argument, it's just a catchment for the bile of readers with nothing better to do.

This post wins the thread, I award 5 internet points.

Washington DC seems to me to be among the worst of these. 395 is at parts a highway with a 45mph speed limit. I didn't realize this once when driving from out of town and was fined $200 for going something in the range of 65-70, which to me was a very safe speed. I remember thinking this was very unethical - like they were deliberately trying to trick foreigners who didn't know the ridiculous rules.

You need to follow the law. Further, there can be many reasons why the speed limit might be 45: cut down on noise pollution, emissions, etc.

So what's your explanation for why the optimal fine is $200? What's your explanation for the lack of signs about the speed limit? If they were trying to discourage the behavior they'd start with a warning or a small fine and they'd make it clear through signs that the speed limit is far lower than any other highway nearby and that it is strictly enforced. $200 is a revenue play. It's right moments from VA where the speed limit is 70 and they end up raising revenue from drivers who don't realize they are breaking the law.

I thought the South, Texas, and Oklahoma were small government loving conservative states. Instead they support policies where literally a police state robs its own people abusing its monopoly of violence. If the state needs more funds, then they should work through the legislature, you know, good old-fashioned democracy. Much more civilized than outright theft.

If our government would put it up for a vote we would probably get rid of all moving violations

I wonder if the over-representation of Louisiana on this list is related to its civil-law-based system vs the common law approach of the other 49 states...

Proud of the North Carolina Constitution for doing exactly that and preventing local sheriff's departments from making money with stops, which is also why no North Carolina jurisdictions showed up on the map in the article.

Another good article from Governing. It will be missed.

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