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Police fees shore up budgets in many towns

Nova Safo Mar 11, 2015
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Thomas Jackson, the police chief in Ferguson, Missouri, resigned Wednesday, exactly one week after a scathing report from the Department of Justice criticized the city’s use of law enforcement as a revenue generation tool.

Ferguson City Manager John Shaw stepped down on Tuesday.

Last Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder said Ferguson officials pressured police to generate revenue through aggressive tactics and ticketing. City officials exerted “overriding pressure,” Holder said, using “law enforcement not as a public service, but as a tool for raising revenue.”

Beth Colgan, a law professor at UCLA who has been studying the issue of municipalities and their use of fees, says there’s evidence that a lot of local governments are using law enforcement and court fines to shore up budgets.

“If you look at the criminal and civil codes in any county or state,” says Colgan, “as a general matter, the use of fines, and fees, and costs, is something that’s pervasive around the country.”

In Chicago, for instance, red light cameras reportedly generate $70 million in fines every year. There is now debate between mayoral candidates about whether those cameras should remain, and if not, how to replace that revenue.

The tiny town of Randolph, Missouri, got into trouble a few years ago when the state learned the town’s budget came almost exclusively from highway traffic fines.

Knowing whether local governments’ reliance on fines has become a national problem or not is difficult, says Brian Jackson, because of a lack of empirical research examining the issue nationwide.

Jackson, who heads the safety and justice program at the Rand Corporation, says there is no question that fines and fees became prominent revenue sources for many local governments, especially after the financial crisis. 

“As a business model, funding through fine revenue does reduce the amount of taxes that have to be levied to pay for public safety, because it’s another funding stream,” Jackson said. 

But while many municipalities are relying on fines and fees from law enforcement, few have considered the potential implications, Jackson says

“The problem here is one of incentives,” he said. “The question comes down to how much is too much, and at what point does that start distorting the decisions of individual officers,” or their superiors. 

The bigger question, he says, is whether voters are willing to fund services their local governments provide through taxes instead of fines and fees.

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