In August 2014, Michael Brown, Jr., was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. The incident triggered several nights of protests and tense interactions between police and city residents. The U.S. Department of Justice subsequently launched a civil rights investigation into the Ferguson Police Department, the results of which were released in a report published by the DOJ in March 2015.
The Department of Justice report offered a scathing review of the Ferguson Police Department. Specifically, the investigation revealed widespread racial bias and discrimination within the police department. Moreover, the report noted that:
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.
Law enforcement officials in Ferguson delivered higher revenues through fines and fees resulting from municipal code enforcement. Between 2010 and 2015, fines and fees nearly doubled as a share of Ferguson’s general revenues—from $1.30 million (12%) to 3.09 million (23%). As noted in the DOJ report, fines and fees charged by the city were higher than those charged by neighboring municipalities. For example, the charge for “Weeds/Tall Grass” in a neighboring city was just $5. In Ferguson, the charges for the same violation were between $77 and $102.
Ferguson is a particularly stark example of a problem in jurisdictions across the country. Fines and fees are often used as a source of state and local government revenues. Fines and fees revenue is typically used to fund court operations, including salary and personnel costs. However, some governments rely on courts to generate revenue for other services as well. In some cases, this revenue is earmarked for a specific purpose related to the offense committed. In others, it goes to a government’s general fund or to purposes wholly unrelated to the justice system. The use of fines and fees as a source of revenue raises significant questions of fairness and may create poor incentives for law enforcement agencies, courts, and other government entities, which may be dependent on the revenues generated.
The primary responsibilities of the legal system are to promote public safety and to provide for justice. Pressure to raise revenue, at best, undermines—and at worst, directly conflicts with—those responsibilities.
When incentives are misaligned, police departments and court systems become more concerned with “taxation by citation” than carrying out their core functions. Such conflicts of interest also serve to undermine the legitimacy of the justice system among the public.
Lawmakers are beginning to recognize the problems presented by fines and fees, but fiscal concerns may present a barrier to reform.
The aim of this policy brief is to summarize existing research on the effects of fines and fees in the justice system and to present potential reforms that would resolve such fiscal concerns.
Full policy brief — Fines and fees: Consequences and opportunities for reform