Often times local governments like to get “creative” about raising revenue. One of the most pernicious avenues for this is fines and fees relating to the criminal justice system.

Local governments may view fines and fees as an easy way to make money that doesn’t require raising tax rates. They also may use this tactic to avoid caps on local tax increases, to keep growing government. The reality is that using fines and fees as a revenue source is far less consistent and effective than politicians might hope.

A recent analysis found, “Most (local governments) fail to collect 20 to 30 percent of the fines and fees that they assess” … “One New Mexico county pays $1.17 to collect every dollar it brings in.” What looks like any easy cash grab at first, might not pan out that way. Even though most governments are taking in money overall, it is inefficient.

“Hundreds of municipalities rely on them for more than 20 percent of their general fund revenues.” This turns fines and fees into taxes, and turns police officers into tax collectors. It creates a strange incentive system where in order to cover their budget for the year, government must impose a large number of fines. Meanwhile, actual crime rates are trending down. It begs the question, is the purpose of our system justice or revenue? Are punishments being applied to offenders because we believe them to be appropriate or because we want to raise funds? 

Some say the quota shake down is real, Officer Adhyl Polanco told NPR, “The culture is, you’re not working unless you are writing summonses or arresting people.”

The true cost of fines and fees gets worse when you consider that many states allow courts to suspend peoples’ driver’s licenses as a punishment for owing court debt.

This practice means people who have not committed an offense related to safe driving can lose their ability to get to and from work because they owe fines and cannot afford to pay them. This creates a vicious scenario where someone has to risk committing another, often worse offense, driving without a license, or risk losing their job. Not working only makes it harder for someone to afford their court debt.

Some states are pursuing solutions to these challenges. A number of states have ended the practice of suspending one’s driver’s license as a punishment for owed court debt. While other states have limited how reliant local budgets can be on fines and fees, as ATR President Grover Norquist writes in the Chicago Tribune:

Missouri passed legislation limiting fines, fees and court costs to a total of $300 and preventing cities from jailing people simply because they couldn’t pay. Missouri also passed legislation lowering the cap on the percentage of a city’s budget that could come from fines and fees from 30% to 20%.”

Much more progress needs to be made. The justice system should place public safety and justice first, not what is profitable.