George Floyd was allegedly passing a fake $20 bill.
Rayshard Brooks had too much to drink.
Philando Castile had a broken tail-light.
Mike Brown was allegedly “walking in an illegal manner” down the roadway.
Eric Garner was allegedly selling cigarettes.
Freddie Gray allegedly possessed a switchblade.
Each case is different, but there are two overarching facts that will not be changed by any official review or court proceeding.
These were all Black men who were killed by police officers.
And two, in the words of sociologist Alexes Harris, in “all of these killings, the initial interaction was for ticky-tack fines and fees that gave the police excuses to stop these young men in the street.”
As our nation has a long-overdue reckoning with racism — within the criminal justice system, within our society, and within ourselves — everyone, especially those in leadership positions, should ask what we can do to end this horrifying litany of lost lives.
And for those of us in the business of watching over public funds, part of the answer must be taking a hard, honest look at how local governments raise money.
Too often — and especially during economic downturns — some governments turn to using court fines and fees to make budget. It refills their coffers, but at the direct expense of lower-income and minority communities, and in a way that dramatically increases the odds of conflict between police forces and the citizens they exist to protect.
A reliance on government-imposed fines and fees is associated with unnecessary use of force and even fatalities. Ferguson, Missouri, is 67% African-American. By fiscal year 2013-2014, at least 20% of the city’s entire budget was funded by fines and fees. A Department of Justice investigation later concluded that city officials deliberately set policies at every level of enforcement to make as much money as possible from fines and court fees from those who could least afford it.
The result was even worse than discriminatory and expensive ‘ticky-tack’ citations. Black residents, despite making up two-thirds of the total population, accounted for at least 90% of failure-to-comply citations, arrest warrants and documented use-of-force cases. By the end of 2014, 16,000 warrants for arrest were outstanding, representing a staggering 76% of the city’s population.
Most of us know the rest of the story. In an environment that some experts called a “powder keg,” created by the for-profit culture of the Ferguson Police Department, Michael Brown was shot and killed in 2014 by a police officer and the city erupted into chaos.
Unfortunately, Ferguson is not an outlier. Nationally, nearly every state has increased or added criminal and civil court fees since 2008. Outstanding fines totaling $50 billion are owed to local governments alone, with 60% of that debt owed by African-American or Latino individuals. Judges in 44 states are allowed to imprison people for failure to pay debts, even though debtor’s prisons were outlawed nearly 200 years ago in the United States.
But it isn’t just local government’s fault; the financial and investor community has responsibility here, too.
When any local government shows increasing revenue, the typical response from the investors buying its bonds, or the ratings agencies evaluating them, is to cheer.
But when revenues are increasing from court fines and fees falling disproportionately on people of color, that’s not actually a sign of fiscal health, but of serious trouble ahead. It’s neither a just nor a wise way to fund government. The long-term costs — on every level — are immense.
Ferguson’s policy of taxation by citation? Their municipal bonds went to junk status and are still there. Jailing people for low-level citations and fines and fees? The ACLU now estimates nearly 100,000 avoidable COVID-19 deaths could come from this mass incarceration.
The tacit approval of for-profit policing — and its terrible consequences for Black lives — by some of the most powerful stakeholders in our society must end. We need to urgently adopt reforms, from banning ticket quotas, providing no-fee payment plans that are proportional to the defendant’s income, and ensuring that fines and fees themselves cannot lead to the loss of driving and occupational privileges, to ending civil forfeiture or diverting proceeds away from the criminal justice system.
And we need the financial and investor community — that’s everyone who’s ever bought a municipal bond, or a share in a mutual fund that does — to step up and say “enough.”