“Citation Taxation” in Many US Cities Does Not Protect the Public and May Compromise Individual Rights


Over the past decade, many American cities have attempted to fill budget holes by increasing revenues through enforcing their city codes. Dick M. Carpenter II survey of three cities in Georgia that practice “citation tax”. He finds that the budget share of fines and fees was three times higher in these cities than in others, most citations had little to do with public safety and local courts also play an important role in generating income.

In August 2014, the city of Ferguson, Missouri came to the attention of the international community when a police officer shot dead Michael Brown, and the city sparked protests. Many observers have blamed systemic racism for the unrest. Yet a 2015 US Department of Justice report found that another, more mundane factor was also at work: city code enforcement.

For many years before Brown’s murder, the city uncompromisingly enforced its codes to increase revenue. City leaders pressured the politically appointed police chief and municipal court judge to help deal with growing budget pressures through a citation – a ticket or a notice stating a violation of the law – income. The practice has created persistent tensions between law enforcement and citizens, more than two-thirds of whom are black. Brown’s murder sparked tensions in three waves of multi-day protests.

While it may be tempting to view Ferguson’s pursuit of citing income as abnormal, the municipality only placed 18th on a list of US cities in such activity. Cities across the country – in Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, New York State, Tennessee, and Utah – rank above Ferguson. And, as evidenced by a 2017 U.S. Civil Rights Commission report, concern is growing that it may be more common than previously believed for cities to use code enforcement to filling municipal coffers rather than just to protect the public. Critics have dubbed such an activity “tax-by-citation”.

How some cities rely on fines and fees

Despite these concerns and with a few exceptions like Ferguson, little is known about the types of municipalities that generate substantial revenue through fines and fees. What is the profile of these cities? What processes and structures do they use to generate income? To what extent are health and safety served by this practice?

To begin answering these questions, my coauthors and I conducted case studies of three cities in Georgia that have historically relied on fines and fees as a significant source of income: Clarkston, Morrow, and Riverdale. In addition to being modest in size and located in the Atlanta area, cities are home to a large percentage of low-income residents and racial / ethnic minorities. And, in 2012, they produced between 18.7% and 24.4% of their income in the form of fines and fees, which places them in the top 10 US cities for such revenue generation.

Our analysis relied on extensive data collection: city and state financial records, court observations, census data, videos and photos of city neighborhoods and traffic, court workloads , code application files, minutes of city council meetings and probation data.

Our main conclusions were threefold. First, fines and fees were consistently the second most important source of revenue, after property taxes, for the cities in the sample. From 2012 to 2016, fines and fees represented annual average revenue shares of 14% for Riverdale, 17% for Morrow and 25% for Clarkston. Taxes represented between 58 and 71 percent of income. In Georgian towns of comparable size, fines and fees amounted to only 3% of income. Figure 1 shows the annual fines and fees percentages for the period 2012 to 2016. The downward trend likely represents a decrease in dependence on fines and fees as the economy postulates. -recession is improving. This is precisely the explanation offered by the former mayor of Morrow. When asked why the revenues from fines and fees seemed to be declining, he replied: “The current trends and forecasts show improvement, and our city does not have the same crisis situation to face over the next one. fiscal year ”.

Figure 1 – Fines and Fees as a Share of Revenue over Time, Fiscal Years 2012-2016

Second, the cities in the sample generated revenue from fines and fees by issuing a large number of road and non-road citations for offenses that rarely threatened public health and safety. Of the contraventions, non-speeding infractions accounted for the largest proportion. These included parking and lane violations, tinted windows, illegal U-turns and expired tags. Non-traffic citations were those issued for a personal driving misdemeanor, such as strolling in a park after hours or noise violations, or aesthetic property violations, such as the accumulation of debris, tall grass and weeds, or failure to meet cleanliness or neighborhood standards.

Third, municipal courts appear to play a central role in income generation. Courts should act as neutral arbitrators between city prosecutors and defendants. But based on archived data and our own observations, we question whether the courts in the sample cities live up to this ideal. In practice, their procedures suggest that income generation can be a major goal; all courts operate like well-oiled machines.

During our courtroom observations, proceedings proceeded quickly, with many cases being covered at each session. On average, each case was treated in two to three minutes. The data show that the cities in the sample were cleaned up, i.e. eliminated, more cases than the comparison cities (see Figure 2). They have settled about half of their cases. In the cities in the sample, customs clearance rates were on average 7 to 33 percentage points higher. Perhaps most tellingly, defendants in the city’s sample – few of whom were represented by lawyers – pleaded or were found guilty 97% of the time, on average.

Figure 2 – Court cases processed, 2012-2016

Ability to pay determinations were clearly inconsistent, observed in 59% of cases across the three cities. When the judges made these decisions and found the defendants unable to pay fines, most were sentenced to probation. Judges rarely awarded alternative sentences, such as community service. Although probation gives defendants time to pay fines, this benefit can become a liability as fees accumulate during the probation period.

“Ticket” (CC BY 2.0) by chucknado

Clarkston and Morrow consistently assigned more than twice as many people to probation as statewide averages, and those probations were handled by private, for-profit companies. Riverdale has put even more people on probation, although it has managed its own probation services. Its population on probation was more than seven times the state average. For all three cities, probation generated more than $ 9 million in fines from 2012 to 2016, averaging 17-42% of total fine revenue. Figure 3 illustrates the annual percentages by city.

Figure 3 – Percentages of Total Fines Receipts from Probation, Fiscal Years 2012-2016

In addition, more than $ 600,000 in probation costs in 2016 and 2017 for the three cities. The left panel in Figure 4 shows the total charges collected by each of the cities in the sample compared to the state average. As the right panel shows, quarterly city averages exceeded state averages, with Riverdale’s almost five times higher than state averages.

Figure 4 – Fees Charged While on Probation, 2016-2017

Overall, the cities in the sample share several important characteristics: they are poorer than average, face an uncertain economic future, and appear to have few means to generate substantial income. They process citations through their own courts, which depend on municipal revenues to fund their operations and whose judges are appointed by politicians.

All of this suggests that systemic incentives can produce citation taxation, which can place government revenues above individual rights. Cities should use the application of the code only to protect the public and only with meaningful guarantees for the rights of incumbent citizens. Some local governments have already started to adopt the necessary reforms. The Fines and Costs Justice Center can help municipalities develop personalized solutions with community input. Recent reforms in San Francisco, Chicago and New York have included making fines fairer, eliminating unnecessary fees, reducing fees for low-income residents, creating payment plans, implementing implementing ability-to-pay determinations and ending driver’s license suspensions for people who cannot pay fines. Such efforts are a good start; cities of all sizes across the United States are expected to follow suit.

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Note: This article gives the author’s point of view, not the position of the USAPP – American Politics and Policy, or the London School of Economics.

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About the Author

Dick M. Carpenter II – University of Colorado
Dick M. Carpenter II is a professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and senior director of policy research at the Institute for Justice.

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