How We Fund Our Criminal Justice System

How are your local courts and jails funded? If your community is like most of America, chances are the criminal justice system itself has become a revenue collection service - with problematic results. Every state except Alaska, North Dakota, and DC has increased civil and criminal fees since 2010. Many charge for services that are constitutionally required and were once free. As states and local governments have felt the pinch from the 2008 economic crash, they have turned to fines and fees to fill in budget gaps. The most famous example is in Ferguson, Missouri. The U.S. Justice Department's investigation of the Ferguson Police Department exposed how the department collects fines and fees not for the sake of public safety, but to raise money for city government. The FPD revenue targets in 2015 accounted for 20% of the city's operating budget. Or listen to Jared Thornburg, in Westminister, Colorado. He was ticketed for making an illegal left turn. But because he had lost his job after a serious workplace injury, he couldn't pay the ticket. He found a new job - but the day before he started, he was arrested for not paying the fines, which had escalated from $165 to $306. He was sentenced to 10 days in jail, which cost that city $70 per night. As Jared points out, "It cost the taxpayers more than what my fine was for and it just wasted 10 days of my life." It adds up to what Bill Mauer, from the Institute of Justice, calls "taxation by citation." This reliance on fines and fees to cover fiscal gaps brings along with it four main problems. First, it distracts from public safety. Consider Ferguson, again. The Justice Department report found that the need to collect money "compromised the institutional character of Ferguson's police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing." It also raises concerns about due process at the municipal court, and led to horrible relationships between law enforcement and the African American community who bore the brunt of the fees. A 2013 study from the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators said law enforcement officials spend too much time pursuing people who have had licenses suspended - often for failure to pay fines - rather than enforcing safe driving. Law enforcement is a tough enough job without asking cops to be debt collectors, too. When we put that kind of pressure on our criminal justice system, it changes the incentives for everyone involved and corrupts our system of law. Second, reliance on fines and fees is inefficient - and, surprisingly, can actually cost more. The State of Washington saw a net gain of less than $6 million in 2006 despite collecting $21 million. In Washington, one man was jailed for two weeks for missing $60 in court payments, and in Ohio, a woman was held in jail for over a month for an unpaid legal debt of $250 - even though it can cost more than $100 per night to incarcerate someone. In 13 percent of 2008 incarcerations for unpaid debts in Rhode Island, the cost of jail exceeded the amount owed. The truth is few states evaluate whether such systems cost more than they bring in. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, is currently working with the Brennan Center under a grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to conduct a fiscal impact study to measure when approaches to issuing and collecting fines and fees makes financial sense. This is invaluable research that will change lives. Just imagine if Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, had done the math before it jailed 246 people in 2009 in an attempt to ward off a budget deficit and state austerity cuts. They collected only $33,476, while spending more than $40,000 on jail terms. Third, extensive fines and fees are completely counter-productive. According to the Brennan Center, a non-partisan public policy institute focused on issues of democracy and justice, fines and fees make it harder for people to reenter society after jail, because they often start out with justice system debt around their neck, and increases the rate at which people who have served time end up back behind bars. The Brennan Center and the ACLU both point out that incarcerating people who have no money actually makes it harder for them to repay their debts, and hold down a steady job. In short, using fines and fees to pay for regular expenses results in a rehabilitation system that doesn't rehabilitate, and a revenue system that can cost more than it rakes in. Last but not least, the fines and fees fiasco makes life miserable for everyone. One of the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit challenging this system is a woman who was given a two-page list of improvements to complete on her house within 30 days or receive tickets from the city. 83 years old and on a limited budget, there was no way she could comply. When we start filling budget gaps with fines and fees, it perverts our system of justice, erodes communities, and can even make fiscal situations worse. Hopefully our state and local officials take notice.

---- This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and #cut50 on Fees and Fines in the American criminal justice system. Two hundred years ago, the United States abolished debtors prisons but a new wave of monetary sanctions is bringing back the practice.