ADDICTED TO FINES: Small Towns in Much of the Country Are Dangerously Dependent on Punitive Fines and Fees
GOVERNING Magazine, September 2019
Flashing police lights are a common sight all along Interstate 75 in rural south Georgia. On one recent afternoon in Turner County, sheriff’s deputies pulled over a vehicle heading northbound and another just a few miles up on the opposite side of the interstate. In the small community of Norman Park, an officer was clocking cars near the edge of town. In Warwick to the north, a police cruiser waited in the middle of a five-lane throughway.
These places have one thing in common: They issue a lot of tickets, and they finance their governments by doing it. Like many other rural jurisdictions, towns in south Georgia have suffered decades of a slow economic decline that’s left them without much of a tax base. But they see a large amount of through-traffic from semi-trucks and Florida-bound tourists. And they’ve grown reliant on ticketing them to meet their expenses. “Georgia is a classic example of a place where you have these inextricable ties between the police, the town and the court,” says Lisa Foster, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “Any city that’s short on revenue is going to be tempted to use the judicial system”....
Dallas County Studying Whether It Can Reduce or Eliminate Criminal Fees, Fines
DALLAS MORNING NEWS, July 05, 2019
Dallas County is exploring whether to reduce or eliminate criminal fees and fines as part of a consultant's study undertaken to find alternative revenue sources.
Researchers from the Center for Justice and Safety Finance, which is part of the consulting firm Public Financial Management, collected data last week on Dallas County’s use of fees and fines in criminal cases, from misdemeanors to felonies, and hope to develop recommendations by year's end.
Criminal fines contributed an estimated $3 million to Dallas County's general revenue fund of $533 million in fiscal 2018, according to the county's 2019 budget. Justice of the Peace fines for the lowest level offenses amounted to an estimated $4.6 million the same year, according to that same budget....
California is Considering Ending Criminal Court Fees and Wiping Out Billions in Debt
MOTHER JONES, June 17, 2019
Three years ago, during Brandon Greene’s first week working as a lawyer in a new clinic affiliated with the East Bay Community Law Center, he was handed a stack of cases to review. Each involved a client who was struggling to pay down the fines and fees that easily accumulate in California’s criminal justice system. It was his job to help.
A handful of the cases were so old that he couldn’t find current contact information for the clients. He quickly realized that “some of those folks,” even if he did reach them, “could not get back on their feet at all” because of their debt. “The folks who were being affected were mostly indigent,” he said. “Everything costs money. Every program costs money. And a lot of folks can’t afford to pay these things.”
Now, there’s a chance they won’t have to.
Nashville Mayor David Briley Favors Cutting Court Fines and Fees
THE TENNESSEAN, June 3, 2019
Mayor David Briley said he is willing to lower some of Nashville's court fines and fees this year after a review from local criminal justice leaders and national groups.
The work comes as cities across the country are reconsidering court costs that can trap poor people under a growing mountain of fines that keeps them in the criminal justice system.
"This is part of how you become more equitable,” Briley said during an interview discussing the ongoing review in Nashville. “We should not be in a position where we’re passively keeping people from prospering and being successful by how we run our criminal justice fines and fees system.”
Financial management firm PFM's Center for Justice & Safety Finance and the National League of Cities are assisting with the review. The city secured free technical assistance from the groups.
The Center for Justice & Safety Finance is expected to suggest possible fee and fine cuts this fall, along with recommendations about how the city can replace any revenue it loses as a result.
Ramsey County Joins National Effort to Reduce Reliance on Criminal Fines
MINNENAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE, June 5, 2019
Ramsey County is one of three jurisdictions selected nationwide to look at ways to reduce their reliance on criminal fines and fees as sources of revenue, which frequently can create a vicious cycle of debt and new charges for those unable to pay.
PFM, a national financial advisory firm that works with cities and counties, will partner on the project with Ramsey County, Dallas and Nashville through its Center for Justice and Safety Finance. PFM launched the center this year to examine how local governments come to rely on fines and fees to support the biggest line item in their budgets: public safety.
“Too often, fees and fines can be a form of poor tax — a revenue source that disproportionately hits low-income offenders,” said David Eichenthal, the center’s executive director and PFM managing director. “Progressive local government leaders understand that they don’t need to choose between balanced budgets and fairness in the criminal justice system.”
OPINION: "Bill Lee has a chance to unite state and local governments for justice reform"
THE TENNESSEAN, December 13, 2018
In his post-election remarks, Governor-elect Bill Lee highlighted the need for criminal justice reform designed to reduce recidivism. Success will require a new compact between state and local government.
The need for action is clear. According to FBI crime data from 2017, Tennessee had the third-highest violent crime rate in the nation, and in that same year, there were 527 homicides – up by 57 percent over just a five-year period.
The fiscal cost of responding to crime has been high as well.
In 2016, Tennessee state and local governments spent just over $3 billion on police and corrections.
Both of us have worked in local government in Tennessee and with many local governments across the country.
Police Misconduct Is Increasingly a Financial Issue
GOVERNING MAGAZINE, June 20, 2018
For governments, getting sued unfortunately comes with the territory. But in recent years, the amount that cities are shelling out for police misconduct lawsuits has become not just a criminal justice issue but a financial one as well.
For big cities, the costs are alarming -- equivalent to huge line items in agency budgets.
In just the first eight weeks of this year, for instance, Chicago paid out $20 million in police misconduct lawsuits, according to a local news investigation. That's outpacing its average of $47 million a year over the last six years. New York City pays by far the most. In 2017, it doled out a record $302 million for police misconduct lawsuits, according to the city controller's office.
For small cities, however, the financial impact can be even bigger. Most small governments have liability insurance to help them cover the costs of lawsuits. But legal costs for police misconduct can still place huge strains on budgets and, in some cases, can lead to law enforcement agencies being disbanded.
Recently in Lakewood, Wash., a jury returned a $15 million verdict for the death of Leonard Thomas, who was unarmed when a police sniper shot him. While Lakewood's insurance is expected to cover a portion of that payout, the city still has to spend $6.5 million on punitive damages -- an amount equivalent to 18 percent of the city's annual spending....
Three Major US Counties Working to Eliminate Criminal Fines and Fees
(JUNE 4, 2019): Today, PFM’s Center for Justice & Safety Finance (CJSF) announced three major U.S. counties (Dallas, TX; Nashville-Davidson, TN: and Ramsey, MN) as partners in an effort to reduce or eliminate their reliance on criminal fines and fees as a revenue source. The three counties were selected through a competitive process to receive technical assistance from CJSF, made possible by a $1.2 million Arnold Ventures grant to PFM....
New Center Launched to Focus on Local Cost of Criminal Justice and Public Safety
(JANUARY 8, 2019): With city and county governments typically spending more than half of their annual budgets on public safety and criminal justice operations and programs, PFM today announced the launch of the Center for Justice & Safety Finance (CJSF).