Law Enforcement as Revenue Stream

After the financial class melted down the world economy, local governments faced an obvious reduction in their revenues. As the economy recovered under a Democrat President, the Republicans held onto or gained power in many state governments, such as my own adopted state of Florida. With laudable consistency with their professed ideology, Republicans routinely cut taxes for businesses, the well off and sometimes even almost everyone. While the theory seems to be that cutting taxes will increase the revenue for state and local governments, shockingly the opposite seems to happen: state and local governments find themselves running short of funds needed to meet the expenses of actually operating a civilization.

Being resourceful, local leaders seek other revenue streams in order to pay the bills. While cities like Ferguson provide well-known examples of a common “solution”, many cities and towns have embraced the practice of law-enforcement as revenue stream. While the general practice of getting revenue from law enforcement is nothing new, the extent to which some local governments rely on it is rather shocking. How the system works is also often shocking—it often amounts to a shakedown system one would expect to see in a corrupt country unfamiliar with the rule of law or the rights of citizens.

Since Ferguson, where Michael Brown was shot on August 9, 2014, has been the subject of extensive study, I will use the statistics from that town. Unfortunately, Ferguson does not appear to be unique or even unusual.

In 2013, Ferguson’s court dealt with 12,108 cases and 24,532 warrants. This works out to an average of 1.5 cases and 3 warrants per household in Ferguson. The fines and court fees that year totaled $2,635,400—making the municipal court the second largest revenue stream.

It would certainly be one thing if these numbers were the result of the legitimate workings of the machinery of justice. That is, if the cases and warrants were proportional to the actual crimes being committed and that justice was being dispensed fairly. That is, the justice was just.

One point of concern that has been widely addressed in the national media is that the legal system seems to disproportionally target blacks. In Ferguson, as in many places, the majority of the cases handled by the court arise from car stops. Ferguson is 29% white, but whites make up only 12.7% of those stopped. When a person is stopped, a black citizen will be searched 12.1% of the time, while a white citizen will be searched 6.9% of the time. In terms of arrest, a black citizen was arrested 10.4% of the time and a white citizen was arrested 5.2% of the time.

One stock reply to such figures is the claim that blacks commit more crimes than whites. If it were true that blacks were being arrested in proportion to the rate at which they were committing crimes, then this would be (on the face of it) fair. However, this does not seem to be the case. Interesting, even though blacks were more likely to be searched, the police discovered contraband 21.7% of the time. Whites who were searched were found with contraband 34.0% of the time. Also, 93% of those arrested in Ferguson were black. While certainly not impossible, it seems somewhat odd that 93% of the crime committed in the city was committed by black citizens.

Naturally, these numbers can be talked around or even explained away. It could be argued that blacks are not being targeted as a specific source of revenue and the arrest rates are proportional and just. This still leaves the matter of how the legal system operates in terms of being focused on revenue.

Laying aside all talk of race, Ferguson stands out as an example of how law enforcement can turn into a collection system. One key component is, of course, having a system of high fines. For example, Ferguson had a $531 fine for high grass and weeds, $792 for Failure to Obey, $527 for Failure to Comply, $427 for a Peace Disturbance violation, and so on.

If a person can pay, then the person is not arrested. But, if a person cannot afford the fine, then an arrest warrant is issued—this is the second part of the system. The city issued 32,975 arrest warrants for minor offenses in 2013—and the city has a population of 21,000 people.

After a person is arrested, she faces even more fees, such the obvious court fees and these can quickly pile up. For example, a person might get a $150 parking ticket that she cannot pay. She is then arrested and subject to more fees and more charges. This initial ticket might grow to a debt of almost$1,000 to the city. Given that the people who tend to be targeted are poor, it is likely they will not be able to pay the initial ticket. They will then be arrested, which could cost them their job, thus make them unable to pay their court fees. This could easily spiral into a court inflicted cycle of poverty and debt. This, obviously enough, is not what the legal system is supposed to do.

From a moral standpoint, one main problem with using this sort of law enforcement as a revenue stream is the damage it does to the citizens who cannot afford the fines and fees. As noted in the example above, a person could find her life ruined by a single parking ticket. The point of law enforcement in a just society is to protect the citizens from harm, not ruin them.

A second point of moral concern is that this sort of system is racketeering—it puts forth a threat of arrest and court fees, and then offers “protection” from that threat in return for a fee. That is, citizens are threatened to buy their way out of a greater harm. This is hardly justice. If it was practice by anyone else, it would be criminal racketeering and a protection scheme.

A third point of moral concern is that the system of exploiting the citizens by force and threat of force damages the fundamental relation between the citizen and the democratic state. In feudal states and in the domains of warlords, one expects the thugs of the warlords to shake down the peasants. However, that sort of thing is contrary to the nature of a democratic state. As happened during the revolts against feudalism and warlords, people will rise up against such oppression—and this is to be expected. Robin Hood is, after all, the hero and the Sheriff of Nottingham is the villain.

This is not to say that there should not be fines, penalties and punishments. However, they should be proportional to the offenses, they should be fairly applied, and should be aimed at protecting the citizens, not filling the coffers of the kingdom. As a final point, we should certainly not be cutting the taxes of the well off and then slamming the poor with the cost of doing so. That is certainly unjust and will, intended or not, result in dire social consequences.


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  1. Doris Wrench Eisler

    The whole system seems to be geared toward the welfare of the better-off/rich, and against the less-well-off and poor. There seems little doubt about that, as this analyses shows along with the well-known 1%/99% divide phenomenon. Labour unions are back to robber baron days (practically extinct) and even elections are dynastic in the US (and probably everywhere) and dependent on great (relative) wealth and the backing of economic elitists. There is racism without doubt, but it is economic elitism overall.
    Yet the myth of democracy persists. People still have some, albeit almost negligible choice in electing those whom they can enjoy gossiping about and blaming – and peering in at the windows to watch their betters dine and dance. And a fatalist, hoopla attitude cements the whole, grim picture: this is the best can be done and if you can’t make it, it’s your fault.

  2. My brother and I have been having a debate going back about 20 years over ticketing quotas. He has argued that it is legitimate for a city to make fines a part of their budgets. I have taken the opposite view. Basically, he says that if they know roughly x dollars will be collected, it would be irresponsible not to budget it, since that is what budgets are for. I say that budgeting for fines creates a conflict of interest. If the police are doing their jobs well enough, it would prevent infractions and dry up the revenue stream. If the city is relying on that revenue, it puts the police in a bad spot.

    Neither of us think that singling out the poor or minorities is right on any level. But, I think it is an interesting question just how much of the money collected for infractions should be part of a city’s operating budget, and what it should be budgeted for.

  3. Gene,

    That is certainly an interesting and important debate.

    As your brother argues, if a city’s leaders know that it will make an average of X dollars a year off tickets and other enforcement revenues, then it would make sense to factor that into the budget. But, if the city leaders know that because they set a quota, then that would seem to be wrong. It would be somewhat like if I got a bonus for every student who got an A in my class. If I know the average number of As earned in my classes, it would be fine for me to consider that income when planning. But, If I start handing out unearned As for the money, then I would certainly seem to be doing wrong.

    From a practical standpoint, the police can probably expect that they will always have to issue tickets, but you are right to note that they would have an incentive to ensure that they did not succeed in deterring offenses.

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