Editor’s Note: Leah Nelson is research director at the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, a public policy organization that seeks to achieve justice and equity for all Alabamians. Priya Sarathy Jones is the national policy and campaigns director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a national advocacy center that seeks to eliminate the unjust and harmful impacts of fines and fees. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
Since news broke in late January of how police in Brookside, Alabama, allegedly were preying on motorists to pay their own salaries, all eyes have been on the hamlet that appears to have turned its police force into a money-making enterprise. Indeed, from 2018 to 2020, the number of police stops soared, and town revenues from fines and fees increased by more than 640%.
AL.com’s investigative reporting prompted rapid change in the tiny town. Police chief Mike Jones recently resigned and Alabama’s lieutenant governor requested a state audit of the Brookside police department.
There is little question that Jones — who seemingly turned Brookside into a poster child for policing for profit — needed to go. (CNN’s attempt to reach Jones for comment was unsuccessful, and the city of Brookside also declined to comment on what it described to CNN as a “personnel matter.”)
But Jones is just one person in one place. Taxation-by-citation is entrenched in far too many jurisdictions in America. Just like we saw in Ferguson, Missouri, where court fines and fees – largely traffic-related – were a major source of city revenue in recent years, local governments have been using fines and fees unchecked for decades.
Throughout the US, criminal justice policy and tax policy are two sides of the same coin. Relying on crime to keep revenue flowing is an implicit bet against public safety – if crime goes down, so does revenue. A 2019 Governing Magazine report found that fines and forfeitures account for more than 10% of general fund revenues for nearly 600 jurisdictions. The worst offenders were places whose residents could least afford it: jurisdictions where fines accounted for over 20% of general fund revenues had median household incomes less than $40,000.
Since the abusive policing and collections practices of Ferguson, Missouri, came to light several years ago, it’s become clear this is not just a Ferguson problem. In California, traffic tickets that used to cost $100 are now closer to $500. Doraville, Georgia, a town with a population of just over 10,000 people, took in an average of $3 million a year from fines and fees. And Washington, DC issued $1 billion in traffic and parking tickets over three years.
When someone can’t afford to immediately pay, draconian collections and enforcement practices trap families in a cycle of punishment that’s nearly impossible to escape. Turning law enforcement into armed debt collectors further erodes the trust between community and law enforcement.
It is illegal for courts to sentence people to jail in the US when a person is unable to pay their debt — but in practice, people are jailed every day over unpaid fines and fees. In 2018, Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, where one of us is employed, worked with social service providers across Alabama to survey nearly 1,000 people who owed criminal justice debt themselves or who routinely helped others pay it.
Shockingly, among the Alabamians surveyed who owed criminal justice debt, nearly 50% were jailed because they couldn’t keep up with their payments. To avoid jail, many survey respondents had to make desperate choices: 83% chose not to pay for basic needs like rent, utilities or medicine; 44% took out a high-cost payday loans; and 38% turned to crime to get the money they needed to stay out of jail — most often selling drugs, stealing or sex work.
Putting a stop to policing for profit requires policy change, both in Brookside and in towns big and small across the country. To prevent predatory policing, hold police and courts accountable for their behavior and mitigate the harm caused by excessive fines and taxes, we must untangle criminal justice policy from fiscal policy.
We can start by eliminating criminal justice fees, which are a wildly regressive tax. While fines are meant to hold people accountable, the main purpose of fees and court costs is to generate revenue to support basic government operations.
States should also require that all fines and fees be remitted to a state’s general fund and re-allocated to cities based on need, not based on the amount of ticket revenue they raise. This removes the direct incentive to make unnecessary or questionable stops as a fallback measure to raise revenue, while leaving local governments free to prioritize public safety needs.
Short of that, lawmakers should cap the percentage of a municipal budget that can come from policing for profit. Half of Brookside’s total budget came from fines and forfeitures, according to AL.com. While caps do not fully untangle policing from revenue, they erect guardrails to prevent the abuses highlighted in Brookside and jurisdictions like it all around the country.
At a bare minimum, states must develop standards for the operations of municipal police and courts. These should include collecting and publicly reporting data on traffic stops to monitor the demographics of who is being pulled over and why, who is being convicted of what offenses and how they are being punished.
And, finally, states must take immediate steps to mitigate the harms of the current system by eliminating harsh penalties for nonpayment, such as late fees and driver’s license suspensions, which disproportionately fall on low-income individuals who are already unable to pay their fines and fees.
Any municipality that relies on fines and fees to fund basic government services could become the next Brookside. Rooting out one town’s corruption and venality does not get at the root of the problem: using fines and fees as a hidden tax. Only policy change can do that. Lawmakers must commit to reining in the perverse incentives that foster predatory policing. Justice demands it.