Tony Hisgett under CC BY 2.0

Fines and fees have an important role in the criminal justice system. Financial penalties can punish and disincentivize commission of various offenses, while saving costs on incarceration or other penalties when public safety is not a major concern. As with any government fee, there is an appropriate time for someone who has triggered a government action or service to pay for it.

When the limited and appropriate use of fines and fees is distorted, bad things happen. An especially dangerous incentive is created when authorities know their budget is funded by the fines and fees they collect.

A proposed Missouri constitutional amendment, HJR 92/ SJR 71, would create this twisted incentive structure for sheriff and prosecutor pensions. The measure allows the courts to levy fees to fund sheriff and prosecutor pensions. Missouri voters would have the final say if the legislature passes the resolution.

Authorities should not be manipulated to find more or less crime. Left-wing pressure that leads to prosecutors refusing to enforce the laws they swore to uphold is a major problem. Similarly, creating financial reward for arrests, prosecutions, and convictions leads to overenforcement and police looking for crime where there is none.

Missouri is sadly familiar with the downsides of this type of dynamic, as tensions between police and residents were largely driven by police being pressured to find crime and collect fines and fees to fund the city budget. Fine collections were the second-largest revenue source.

Missouri legislators should reject HJR 92/SJR 71 and avoid bringing this dynamic to sheriff pensions. Reason Foundation points out sheriff pensions would only make up a small fraction of the regular local pension system if they were added in, and that local government employer contributions are shockingly low.

The legislation is already through the Senate, and the House has their version and the Senate version in committee.