While cleaning out some of my older materials, I came across a series of papers I wrote while at the University of California over a quarter century ago. This collection caught my eye because it dealt with the then-nascent issue of policing and the growing barriers between our law enforcement system and the public. The situation has clearly gotten worse in the intervening years.
Today, with dash cams, body cams and cell cams, we have the opportunity to see an ever-wider array of public-police interactions. Many of these interactions are generally positive and largely uneventful. However, we are now seeing interactions that show a very different and troubling relationship between the police and the public, even between those in the judiciary and the public. The public – be they black, white, brown or any other hue – are becoming prey to the hunters of the law enforcement system.
The core cause of this problem, which undermines our entire law enforcement system, is that we have turned the enforcing of our laws from a public safety process to a public revenue process. Fines levied upon those who have committed an infraction were originally supposed to be a form of punishment and a deterrent against repeat offenses, as well as acting as an example to others. Along the way, the fines, fees, levies and the like that were generated became like a drug to local governments.
In one example, a $35 traffic fine became engorged to a total bill of $235 and included surcharges from 10 other agencies. The amount of money which could be raised in such a way is substantial. As more money comes in, taxes remain low or even reduced. Many argue it is fitting that those who break the law should be expected to pay for enforcing it. By that logic, fire departments should be funded by fees charged to those whose property burns, hardly a desirable situation.
In a recent review of local government budgets in northern St. Louis County, Missouri, some towns are generating as much as 29 percent to 39 percent of the city budgets from their court fines. While red light cameras have brought traffic fines to a higher level of visibility, just putting a cap on traffic fines only serves to move the problem. If you limit how much revenue a governmental entity can raise from a particular source, i.e., traffic fines, this simply drives the government to find that revenue elsewhere. This is what happened in Missouri in 2010. Towns increased non-traffic related arrests and fines by nearly 500 percent to make up for the capped traffic fine money.
In Pinellas County, Florida, when somebody grills outside, the actual smell of the burning charcoal and/or the yummy dishes being cooked cannot cross the property line under penalty of law. That’s right. If you barbecue in your backyard, you pay a fine. There is a video of Scotty Jordan, an African-American, being told by a local bureaucrat that barbecue smoke and odor can’t cross his property line.
Body and dash cameras are a big start in reforming the current law enforcement system. However, they will not change the underlying issue, which is that police and courts now look upon the public as a source of easy cash. This governmental shakedown must stop.
The easiest way to do so is to cut the incentives to arrest and ticket for money. All monies raised from fines, fees, taxes, surcharges, etc. must go into a state fund distributed to nonprofit entities. Only in this way can we break the link between treating citizens, particularly the poorest citizens, as financial sheep to be fleeced and terrorized. Government-run extortion via our justice system must end.
This action will also save taxpayers money. Today, law-abiding citizens find their taxes raised to cover the thousands of dollars spent on revolving-door incarcerations due to the inability to pay fines, fees and ever-escalating penalties. Citizens also see their taxes raised to support those same individuals who, when finally released from jail, cannot hold down a job and become ever more dependent on public social services.
So, how about 2016 becoming ASPA’s year of justice reform?
Submitted by Craig Donovan