The latest (and sadly the last) issue of Governing magazine has this terrific lengthy cover story fully titled “Addicted to Fines: Small towns in much of the country are dangerously dependent on punitive fines and fees.” I recommend the full extended article, and here is how it gets started:
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.”
This is by no means just a Georgia phenomenon. Throughout the country, smaller cities and towns generate major dollars from different types of fines, sometimes accounting for more than half of their revenues. Some places are known for being speed traps. Others prop up their budgets using traffic cameras, parking citations or code enforcement violations.
To get a picture of just how much cities, towns and counties rely on fines and fees, Governing conducted the largest national analysis to date of fine revenues and the extent to which they fund budgets, compiling data from thousands of annual financial audits and reports filed to state agencies.
What we found is that in hundreds of jurisdictions throughout the country, fines are used to fund a significant portion of the budget. They account for more than 10 percent of general fund revenues in nearly 600 U.S. jurisdictions. In at least 284 of those governments, it’s more than 20 percent. Some other governments allocate the revenues outside the general fund. When fine and forfeiture revenues in all funds are considered, more than 720 localities reported annual revenues exceeding $100 for every adult resident. And those numbers would be even higher if they included communities reporting less than $100,000 in fines; those jurisdictions were excluded from our analysis. In some places, traffic fine revenue actually exceeds limits outlined in state laws.
High fine communities can be found in just about every state, but they tend to be concentrated in certain parts of the country. Rural areas with high poverty have especially high rates. So do places with very limited tax bases or those with independent local municipal courts. And these jurisdictions are far more common in the South than elsewhere. The states that stood out in our analysis were Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas, plus New York. Fines and forfeitures accounted for more than one-fifth of general revenues in the most recent financial audits for 52 localities in Georgia, and 49 in Louisiana. By contrast, several Northeastern states with high property taxes had no localities exceeding the 10 percent threshold.
Notably, the big criminal justice reform plans released by major candidates for the Democratic Prez nomination all make brief mention of excessive fines of fees. But this Governing report provides an interesting insight into just how significant these matters can be for rural areas and their citizenry, and candidates eager to speak to the experiences of rural voters might want to give particular attention to this particular arena for needed criminal justice reforms.