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Enhancing public safety by reforming fines and fees

Feb 24, 2021 by AFP

It is critical that law enforcement agencies value and incentivize actions that promote public safety and build community relations.

However, “bad incentives,” that is, incentives that drive law enforcement activity beyond these core goals, can lead to unnecessary interactions between citizens and law enforcement, less time and resources to focus on training, less time to focus on solving and preventing crime, and an erosion of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.

Allow police to focus on public safety, not raising revenue

An all too frequent problem is when police departments are forced to focus on bringing in revenue. Turning police officers into revenue collectors has not increased public safety. 

Sometimes this is driven by pressure from other federal, state, or local government officials to post higher arrest numbers, bigger fines, and more dollars overall. That may lead them to prioritize forfeitures, traffic tickets, and other drivers of revenue in lieu of protecting public safety.

It should be no surprise that research suggests police departments collecting higher shares of their revenue from fines and fees tend to solve crime (both violent crime and property crime) at significantly lower rates.

And collecting more revenue can lead to bigger problems.

For example, a Department of Justice investigation  of policing in Ferguson, Missouri, after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown found the following:

The City budgets for sizeable increases in municipal fines and fees each year, exhorts police and court staff to deliver those revenue increases, and closely monitors whether those increases are achieved.

City officials repeatedly reminded the department of the importance of raising fines and fees. Police officers should be allowed to focus on public safety, not a conflicting mandate to self-fund. Every officer joined their police force to protect and serve — not act as a tax collector.

Reforming fines and fees is possible

We need to end the criminal justice system’s reliance on fines, fees, and forfeiture.

Instead, core government functions such as public safety should be funded as wholly as possible from the general fund, and not on the backs of those experiencing economic hardship. Payment plans, alternative payment methods, and waivers of financial obligations for those who cannot pay should also be considered. Such reforms have been found to also increase local government revenue and increase economic growth in many jurisdictions.

A number of states have begun to reform their systems to make sure members of law enforcement prioritize the most important mission: the safety of the public.

  • In 2015, Missouri enacted legislation to lower – from 30 percent to 20 percent – a cap on the proportion of a local government’s annual general operating revenue received from fines, bond forfeitures, and court costs for minor traffic violations.
  • Louisiana enacted a measure in 2017 that allows for fines and fees to be paid through community service and/or waived or reduced.

These types of reforms should be considered by other states, to ensure that fines and fees are utilized in a way consistent with enhanced public safety, rather than in competition with it.

You can help change the system of fines and fees in America by signing this petition to reform fines and fees enforcement. Then learn more about Americans for Prosperity’s efforts to build safer communities through smart policing