Nobody likes taxes. In fact, that’s why politicians always campaign on lowering them to lessen burdens on families. But we have to admit, if we didn’t pay them our governments couldn’t govern and provide services we need as a society. Believe me, our Founding Fathers found this out the hard way with the Articles of Confederation. The truth is, governments to raise money somehow and taxation is a fair way to do so. And I think a progressive tax system in which the rich are taxed more than the poor is sufficient since the rich earn more money. Yet, no matter what your tax bracket is, you still benefit from government services in some way. Still, if taxes are either too low or don’t provide enough revenue, then governments could be in trouble and sometimes cutting programs and staff may could lead to catastrophic results. Some local governments may find ways to enrich their coffers during times of financial pressure when other forms of revenue decline.
In recent years, thousands of American cities and towns have relied on judicial fines and forfeiture to fund their governments, which is unhealthy for our democracy. Serious revenue declines, anti-tax popularity, local budget pressures have led municipalities to expand their use of revenue-generating law enforcement practices such as red light and speed cameras. However, public awareness hasn’t hit the national spotlight until the Department of Justice’s 2014 investigation into Ferguson, Missouri. We all know that the DOJ was looking into Ferguson due the police shooting of Michael Brown. But the racism and injustice in Ferguson was far worse. Between 2011 and 2013, the city collected 80% more fines and forfeitures by which point it raised 20% of its budget through this. Before the killing of Michael Brown, Ferguson anticipated that they’d collect an extra million through 2014 through police activity, raising a total of 25% through fines. This despite being home to a Fortune 500 company Edison Electric, a successfully revitalized commercial district, and an office park filled with corporate tenants that Ferguson could’ve taxed for all their worth. Well, if it weren’t for an amendment from the 1980s requiring citywide referendum approval on local tax increases, licenses, or fees. Even then, it wouldn’t be difficult since I think Ferguson’s 67% black population would’ve approved since they pay most city taxes anyway while the wealthy are barely taxed at all. Seriously, Ferguson’s tax system is incredibly unfair. Cities and their police departments may see increasing their dependence on fines as a viable strategy for funding their governments but it corrupts the justice system and brings great harm to the people it serves.
- Profit Policing Is Not Normal nor Financially Healthy – For economically healthy municipalities, even when the absolute dollar total of fines and forfeitures may be large, they still represent a small proportion local revenue. Places like New York City, Washington D.C. and San Francisco only raise about 1-2% of their budget through civil penalties, which is about the norm. And that’s how it should be. Because most cities run on progressive tax revenue like income and property taxes. Ferguson doesn’t. In their budget, regressive taxes like sales and utilities account for almost 60% of the city’s revenue followed by municipal fines at 20%. By contrast, progressive taxes account for just under 12%. This means that Ferguson extracted more revenue from African American renters than from those owning the homes themselves. This is not how a local government should generate revenue and it’s no wonder that Ferguson has had trouble paying its bills since it incurred a debt of $3.7 trillion. And it had its credit rating downgraded to junk status by Moody’s in 2015. Even worse towns around Ferguson relied on fines for over 30% of their revenue. 3 towns in Louisiana reported collecting more from fines than from taxes with Henderson collecting $3.73 in fines for every tax dollar. Relying on fines to keep municipalities afloat isn’t normal because relying on bad behavior to balance local budgets isn’t financially viable. Making even less sense is jailing people who owe less money than it cost to incarcerate them, leading to bigger deficits as well as a cycle of dependency. As the Brennan Center’s Justice Center put it, “Having taxpayers foot a bill of $4,000 to incarcerate a man who owes the state $745 or a woman who owes a predatory lender $425 and removing them from the job force makes sense in no reasonable world.”
2. Profit Policing Undermines Justice– Fines and civil forfeitures were set as disciplinary measures, not as a municipal fundraiser. They were never meant to contribute significant revenue to local governments. But this is exactly what happened in Ferguson that the city manager and police chief discussed using tickets to meet revenue benchmarks. Not to mention, police were encouraged to issue traffic tickets who were evaluated and promoted on how much cash they could gin up. In Saint Louis County, half the judges had incentives to find people guilty and coerce payment through threat of jail. Not to mention, civil asset forfeiture becomes big which results in prosecutors and police departments to adjust budgets and tactics in order to prioritize fundraising over public safety and justice. Often this could lead to police being better trained to pursue seizures and take advantage of lax standards for the department’s benefit. It’s very clear that whenever law enforcement is a fundraising tool, the justice system is severely compromised. Because when you use law enforcement to raise funds, then it’s not about promoting safety or justice. It’s about making money through people breaking the law which can hurt the nation’s most vulnerable people.
3. Profit Policing Discriminates Against Minorities– While Ferguson had a cash-starved municipal government, they were hardly a poor city. Its government could’ve easily solved their money problems by taxing local businesses, one of which is a Fortune 500 company that makes $24 billion a year. The fact Ferguson relied on cops and courts to extract fines and fees to generate revenue was the result of more than a century of public policy choices designed to protect largely white business and property owners while passing the bills along to disproportionately black renters and local residents. Given Ferguson’s extraordinary climate of police harassment, you can guess who got slapped with the fines. Despite that Ferguson is only 67% black and sees plenty of white commuters, 85% of all traffic stops involved black motorists and were twice as likely to be searched and arrested than their white counterparts. This despite when searched, whites were 2/3 more likely to be caught with some sort of contraband. Municipal violations for not mowing the lawn or putting out trash in the wrong place at the wrong time were overwhelmingly issued to blacks. 95% of citations for jaywalking and 93% if arrests were issued to blacks. We should also account that Ferguson’s mayor, city manager, and police chief were white. Minorities are more likely to live below the poverty line. And it’s not just in Ferguson, but in a lot of communities with white leaders and a large minority population. You might know the case of Philando Castile who was shot by a cop in St. Anthony, Minnesota. But you may not know was that this guy had been pulled over by police 52 times within the last 14 years of his life and accrued over $6,000 in fines. Now he must’ve been an epically bad driver or racially profiled on an average of once every 3 months. It’s very clear that St. Anthony relied on Castile’s and his black neighbors’ money to balance their budget. Brennan Center estimates that 10 million people owe more than $50 billion in debt due to their involvement in the criminal justice system. 60% of this total is owed by blacks and Latinos with average totals around $7,000. That said, when police need money, it’s usually minorities who suffer.
4. Profit Policing Screws the Poor– Whenever cities use municipal fines and fees to generate local revenue, the poorest residents usually suffer the most. Not only are often targeted by police like in Ferguson (since many are minorities), but they’re among the least likely to afford the fines. In 2014, 75% of all Ferguson residents had active outstanding arrest warrants. Most of these involved people who couldn’t afford to pay. According to Arch City Defenders, citizens failing to appear or pay fines that were “frequently triple their monthly income” were liable to be jailed, sometimes for as long as 3 weeks. Those with outstanding warrants were rendered ineligible for most forms of public assistance and government-provided social services. This combined with public housing exclusion, often send residents out on the streets. Municipalities can also compound financial hazards for those fined by contracting with private probation collectors who can add additional, legally enforceable fees and interest to the amount the court has required. It doesn’t help those who can’t pay fines, can lose their licenses along with their jobs.
5. Profit Policing Results in Higher Payments– This means that municipalities relying on fines to sustain their budgets might result in violators paying more money than originally owed. Even for a seemingly minor offense. This could happen in a number of ways:
- Initially starting with a reasonable fine but tacking on surcharges and fees-For instance, a $35 fine for running a California stop sign can balloon into $238.00. San Diego is notorious for this since they could tack on as many as 10 surcharges with a $35 speeding ticket like a $40 state penalty assessment, $36 court penalty assessment, a $20 court construction fee, a $8 state surcharge, a $16 DNA identification, a $35 criminal conviction fee, a $40 court operations fee, a $4 emergency medical air transportation penalty, and $1 night court fee. All adding to $235.
- Charging outrageous fines from the get go– Examples include charging $255.000 for driving over less than 25 miles over the speed limit, $500 for party noise, and $1000 on parents for juvenile graffiti. Some can consist of outrageous fines like $450 for stealing $5 of food.
- Payment Plans– Those who can’t afford traffic tickets the first time may take this route in some states. But they can make paying off tickets more difficult and more expensive. In Illinois, people falling behind in payments can get hit with a 30% fee. And New Orleans charges $100 to start one.
- Probation Fees– 44 states charge people various fees for being on probation. Many of these are handled by companies like Judicial Correction Services which charge a $10 set up fee and $140 per month. Those who couldn’t bring the entire amount had to report to JCS offices more frequently, sometimes multiple times a week. When people fell behind, JCS continued to collect its own fees which effectively extended their probations and guarantee the company more money. When people couldn’t pay, employees threatened to revoke their probation which resulted in jail time. It’s an unconscionable practice that should be outlawed.
- Private Collectors– Not only they can collect on tickets but can add additional legally-enforceable fees and surcharges. They can also threaten people who don’t pay with jail. Sure they may charge the courts nothing. But they can charge people on probation a fortune.
6. Profit Policing Results in More Oppression and Hostility– Those who live in municipalities that depend on fines to balance budgets are more likely to be stopped by police and fined. Sometimes this could be for the usual traffic violation. But sometimes it could be for things people really shouldn’t be fined for. For instance, in Pagedale, Missouri, residents can be ticketed and fined for having mismatched curtains, walking on the left-hand side of a crosswalk, wearing pants below one’s waist, having holes in window screens, having a barbecue in front of the house, and more ridiculous ordinances that you can find in a wacky law listing. In Ferguson, 75% of its residents have outstanding arrest records. Municipalities with profit policing are more likely to have a more militarized force as well as higher police brutality against minorities.
7. Profit Policing Leads to More Community Distrust- While trust between law enforcement and the public may be difficult without profit-driven policing practices, using fines to fund municipal governments erodes it even further. Police are sworn to protect the public and work with local communities to solve problems pertaining to crime and disorder. It’s one thing for cops to use excessive force on unarmed black people and get away with it due to systematic racism. But it’s even more unconscionable for cops to harass residents with absurd systems of fines and penalties on mostly extremely minor offenses. Making police revenue generators for cities and towns diverts them from their traditional role of community guardians and protectors. Not to mention, people have been taught to believe that local governments and police are supposed to work for them, not the other way around. Ferguson isn’t a feudal domain where police vassals can harass the peasantry as they please. Such actions lead to a growing distrust between the police and the community, especially among poor and minority citizens. And that’s not good.
8. Profit Policing May Not Be Legal– For many people below the poverty line, facing for being unable to pay a speeding ticket can be a very real possibility. Municipalities significantly funded through fines rely on judges to find people guilty and force them to pay or serve jail time. However, the federal government has already established that judges can’t send people to jail for being too poor to pay fine through a 1983 Supreme Court case. Furthermore, debtors’ prisons were outlawed nearly 200 years ago.
9. Profit Policing Leads to Civil Forfeiture Abuse– Civil forfeiture is when police take people’s money and property without making an arrest. Under this, police don’t have to formally charge owners with a crime, just suspect their assets are tied in some way to illicit activity. And forfeiture is mostly approved without definitive proof of alleged criminal ties. Such property can include cars, homes, and even businesses. Yet, once government takes control of the person’s property, it’s typically sold off sending proceeds back to police departments and legal offices working the case. It’s regularly touted as a crime fighting tool like targeting wealthy criminal finances who may not carry all their cash in the same car. But since there’s a lot of booty potential for cops through civil forfeiture seizures, there’s a strong incentive to pursue this process aggressively and abuse these laws and exploit innocent owners’ lack of safeguards. This is especially true when a police department’s aim is the bottom line. Sometimes they could use it as a slush fund. In 2014, the Departments of Justice and Treasury deposited more than $5 billion into forfeiture funds, up from less than a $1 billion within the last decade. There are countless horror stories of law-abiding citizens who’ve gotten hopelessly entangled in the process. In a couple Texas border towns, it wasn’t unusual for police to pull over minority drivers before seizing whatever money and valuables in their possession. After that, they’d coerce them to sign their possessions over under forfeiture laws by threatening jail on trumped up charges or taking their children. And many must go through a complex legal maze to get it back. But due to lack of transparency and public reporting there’s not a lot of data to tell exactly how lucrative or common civil asset forfeiture is in each state. This has to be fairly common in places like Ferguson. Guess who ends up being victimized by this. Still, civil forfeiture is basically state sponsored theft and should be banned.
10. Profit Policing May Not Be Constitutional– The 8th Amendment bans cruel and unusual punishment as well as excessive bail and fines. Since profit policing can lead to higher fines and fees that people are unable to pay, it’s most likely unconstitutional. Since profit policing happens in minority communities, you can say it violates the Equal Protection Clause that bans discriminatory punishment as well as the Due Process Clause that requires neutral administration of criminal law. Then there’s civil forfeiture which I think is also unconstitutional under the 4th Amendment that protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures. So expect it in the Supreme Court.
11. Profit Policing Hurts Police Accountability– I am aware that police accountability hasn’t been very good lately due to how cops who use excessive force against unarmed black people get away scot free. And I know every police force has its bad apples who make the good cops look bad. However, when budgetary whims replace peacekeeping as law enforcement’s central motivation, then you can forget about police accountability altogether. Because when a police department’s main aim is profit, bad cops are more likely to get away with bad behavior. Not just “bad” as in morally corrupt and racist, but also in a job performance sense. For instance, Ferguson’s Darren Wilson who shot Michael Brown was fired from a previous job. Actually the whole police force Jennings, Missouri was disbanded for being awful. Not to mention, in Ferguson police were even encouraged to ticket and collect fines as well as were rewarded for it in career advancement. The demands were so intense that the police department had little concern with how officers did this, just that they do it a lot. Didn’t matter if their stops had little relation to public safety or questionable legal basis. Didn’t matter if the cops in question were menaces to public safety. Only cops who failed to issue an average of 28 tickets a month were disciplined. I’m sure Darren Wilson wasn’t one of them. At the same time, white police officers frequently fixed parking tickets for friends. Let’s just say it leaves so much room for corruption. After the Brown shooting, the DOJ found the Ferguson Police Department to be an abysmal failure. They reported, ““Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community.”
12. Profit Policing Hurts Judicial Accountability– As we all know in scandals involving privatized prisons, whenever the courts’ aims is to increase revenue, the justice system is severely compromised. It is the same when it comes to municipal fines as well as “Cash for Kids.” Prior to the Michael Brown shooting, the city of Ferguson’s court system was ranged in the top 8 in Saint Louis County by generating more than $1 million in revenue during 2010. Their courts exceeded over $2 million in 2012. At the same time Ferguson Judge Ronald J. Brockmeyer owed $172,646 in back taxes and let his white friends off easy while extracting fees from Ferguson’s poor and black population. And many had the system rigged against them since they couldn’t afford a lawyer or pay a fine. Some even faced jail time. He’s had since been removed.
13. Profit Policing Hurts Public Safety– When revenue is the bottom line in profit policing, police departments focus more on issuing fines on petty offenses for municipal revenue than keeping people safe. It should surprise no one that some well-known police brutality victims were initially stopped for something preposterously minor. This illustrates how profit policing and law enforcement use of excessive force are clearly linked. North Charleston’s Walter Scott was stopped for a busted taillight before Michael Slager gunned him down. Having a busted taillight isn’t even in a crime in South Carolina. And this guy had a record for gratuitously using a taser. Sandra Bland and Samuel DuBose were stopped for minor traffic violations in Texas and Cincinnati like failing to use a turn signal or missing a front license plate. Philando Castile was also stopped for traffic violations for a whopping 53rd time. Wilson stopped Michael Brown for shoplifting and jaywalking. The thing is, when profit policing is in place, abuse is rampant while public safety is compromised. Communities distrust the police who they don’t think work for them. Some may even show a lack of respect for the law and may refuse to cooperate with police. Bad police are allowed to patrol on the streets with guns and may even get away with police brutality. Minorities and poor people are continuously screwed and preyed upon. It is no wonder that Ferguson, Missouri was one police shooting away from civil unrest. We have to accept that public safety depends on the community’s relationship with law enforcement. Municipalities can’t protect their populace if they’re using police to fleece from them since it creates a toxic environment.
14. Profit Policing Corrupts Governments– Look, I know that many municipal governments use their police departments to enhance their coffers because they’re financially struggling and don’t want to raise taxes, especially when taxes would make more financial sense. However, when a government backs profit policing, they’re clearly not acting in the people’s best interests. This was certainly the case with Ferguson but other communities in Saint Louis County were demonstrably worse. Then there’s the fact many of these towns enacted ordinances just for the sake of generating more revenue through fines, especially if they’re unrelated to traffic and not technically illegal elsewhere. Ferguson’s were also skewed since their city manager congratulated the police chief for record citation revenue. While Ferguson’s cops held anti-black views so did their municipal employees as the DOJ found out through various e-mails mocking blacks through speech and familiar stereotypes. Most of Ferguson’s decisionmakers believed African Americans lacked personal responsibility despite that black residents made incredible efforts to pay their fines disproportionately handed out to them. White city officials meanwhile, condoned a striking lack of personal responsibility as the cause.
I saw this on John Oliver’s show- I don’t think may people are aware of this problem. I wasn’t. This is a terrible system and needs to change.