They’re a tempting alternative to raising taxes, but their long-term costs far outweigh the revenue they bring in.
Raising taxes is painful. That may be why, since 2010, 47 states and a number of cities have instead raised both civil and criminal fines and fees. These increases are often viewed as a conflict-free way to plug budget holes.
In the last decade, for example, New York City grew its revenues from fines by 35 percent, raking in $993 million in fiscal 2016 alone. The monies came largely from parking and red light camera violations, as well as stricter enforcement of “quality of life” offenses such as littering and noise. In California, routine traffic tickets now carry a multiplicity of revenue-boosting “surcharges.” As a result, the true price of a $100 traffic ticket is more like $490 — and up to $815 with late fees, according to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.
This increasing reliance on fines and fees comes despite what we learned following the shooting in 2014 of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. A federal investigation of the city’s police department subsequently revealed that as much as a quarter of the city’s budget was derived from fines and fees. Police officers, under pressure to “produce” revenue, extracted millions of dollars in penalties from lower-income and African-American residents. In 2017, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a follow-up report finding that the “targeting” of low-income and minority communities for fines and fees is far from unique to Ferguson.