(Glenn Minnis, The Center Square) Local governments across the country pocketed nearly $9 billion in fines and fees in 2020 with residents in New York, Illinois, Texas and Georgia all paying out more than $35 each on average per capita, a new Reason Foundation study reports.
With 2020 being the most recent year for which data was available, researchers found the states of New York ($1.4 billion), California ($1.26 billion) and Texas ($1.17 billion) collected well over one-third of the cumulative windfall. In all, 20 states saw their local governments bring in more than $100 million in fines and fees over that time.
“Overall, the data tell us that state and local governments are using fines and fees as revenue generators that fund and grow the size of government while undermining individual liberty,” Reason Foundation Director of Criminal Justice Policy and study co-author Vittorio Nastasi told The Center Square. “This taxation by citation is unfair, especially to low-income families, and it creates troubling conflicts of interest in the criminal justice and court system.”
With data for the study obtained from the Census Bureau’s Annual Survey of State and Local Government Finances, more researchers note that local governments are using fines and fees as a significant source of revenue, with at least 482 local governments across the country generating at least 10% of their general revenue from fines and fees as recently as in 2017.
In addition, some 42 municipalities generated at least 50% of their general revenues from fines, fees and forfeits over that same year. Nastasi argues it all can add up to a grossly unfair and unjust system.
“Particularly when local governments rely on fines and fees for a substantial portion of their budgets, it can create bad incentives for police agencies and courts,” he said. “When incentives are misaligned, police departments and court systems become more concerned with “taxation by citation” than carrying out their core functions. For instance, police agencies might dedicate their resources toward traffic enforcement rather than dealing with more serious public safety concerns. Such conflicts of interest also serve to undermine the legitimacy of the justice system among the public.
Nastasi said he would like to see more alternatives to some of the growing list of monetary sanctions.
“Fines and fees are often regressive in their impacts, meaning that they disproportionately burden low-income individuals relative to wealthier people,” he said. “This is because fines and fees are rarely scaled to account for a person’s ability to pay.”
In the end, Nastasi said he worries such a system can end up causing more harm than good.
“When financial penalties impose significant burdens on individuals, they inhibit their ability to act as productive members of society,” he added. “Failure to pay outstanding fines and fees can result in driver’s license suspensions, revocation of voting rights, and even incarceration. Such penalties make it even more difficult for individuals to pay off their debts, reduce access to housing and employment, and create additional administrative costs for governments.”