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by Peter Moskos

October 16, 2014

"Why we need to fix St. Louis County"

Well said by Radley Balko in the Washington Post:
When a local government’s very existence depends on its citizens breaking the law — when fines from ordinance violations are written into city budgets for the upcoming year as a primary or even the main expected source of revenue — the relationship between the government and the governed is not one of public officials serving their constituents, but of preying off of them.

When the primary mission of a police department isn’t to protect citizens but to extract money from them, and when the cops themselves don’t look like, live near or have much in common with the people from whom they’re extracting that money, you get cops who start to see the people they’re supposed to be serving not as citizens with rights, but as potential sources of revenue, as lawbreakers to be caught. The residents of these towns then see cops not as public servants drawn from their own community to enforce the laws and keep the peace, but as outsiders brought in to harass them, whose salaries are drawn from that harassment. The same goes for the judges and prosecutors, who also rarely live in the towns that employ them.
This isn’t as much about a police shooting as it is about the release of residual anger over an antagonistic system of governing that virtually requires its poorest citizens to live in misery and despair.
If Bel-Ridge wasn’t collecting the equivalent of $450 in fines each year for each of the town’s residents, the town of Bel-Ridge probably wouldn’t exist.
This is what St. Louis County government is built upon. And this is what needs to be changed.
When I was a cop, I knew my ticket money went to the city. Hell, I was happy to help Baltimore. But I never felt that my job depended on me fining residents.

New York City gets about $500 million annually from parking tickets, which is the biggest chunk of about $820 million overall in fines. New York's overall budget is about $70 billion. So we're talking one to two percent of the city's budget coming from fines. I don't know about court fees, but I doubt they're a money maker for the city.

I don't think a big-city perspective really gets at what is going on in these small towns where government seems to exist for the sole purpose of taking money from residents: "Pine Lawn, with an embattled mayor facing federal charges of steering towing jobs to a particular company, brought in close to 70 percent through its courts last year. At least four other St. Louis County municipalities — Beverly Hills, Bella Villa, Calverton Park and Cool Valley — all took in more than half their general revenue that way, according to reports submitted to the state." And "It's illegal: "The city of Bourbon was breaking state law. Under Missouri law, a city is only supposed to make 30 percent of its revenue off tickets."

Thirty, 40, 70 percent of budgets comes from fines and court fees? Mandatory private garbage collection? Per person occupancy permits? It sounds like a straight-up criminal racket, and one enforced by police and the courts.


Ebenezer Scrooge said...

I know some folk who work as parking adjudicators. Parking tickets are definitely money makers, and NYC is very aware of this. Respondents have a much tougher time in the Bronx than Staten Island. I wonder why?

Now the difference in degree between NYC and STL is enormous, and may amount to a difference in kind. But you don't have to be a libertarian, like Balko, to believe that government is always inclined to be most burdensome on those who can't fight back.

PCM said...

We could also levy fines based on income. I think they do that in Sweden. After all inasmuch as fines are meant to deter, $100 means a whole lot more to poor person than a rich person.