I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the last time I got a speeding ticket. It was nearly a decade ago and it’s a pretty unremarkable story: I was on my way back to Columbus, Ohio, from a friend’s wedding and was going something like 15 mph over the speed limit. An officer pulled me over, asked me if I knew why he did, walked back to his squad car and returned with a ticket for US$90.
At the time, I didn’t think much about it. I was 22, I was speeding, and that is what happened when you got caught. I didn’t consider the motives of the officer, his law enforcement agency or the financial status of the city he worked for. And I definitely didn’t consider the fact that I was a brown man driving through rural Ohio.
But now that I’m a scholar of public finance, it’s all I can think about. My recent research – and that of others – shows that communities with more residents of color are more likely to rely on revenue coming from traffic tickets and other minor fines.
Fines as revenue
Local governments on average don’t rely all that much on revenue from things like traffic citations, termed fines and forfeitures.
According to data from the Census of Governments, the average city generated about $21 per person from fines in 2012, the last year for which there is national data. For reference, the average city generated about $150 per person from sales taxes at the time.
But there is a lot of variation: Some cities get more than 10% or 20% of their revenue from fines.
Why might some communities rely on fines way more than others do? One reason could be higher incidences of crime. Another might be that certain governments make a strategic choice to target passersby via speed traps. It could be a response to budgetary shortfalls or fiscal stress. And still another might be the race of the population or law enforcement agency.
If it’s not clear how or why this could involve race, you should take a look at the Department of Justice report on in Ferguson, Missouri. After Michael Brown, a black man living in a majority-black community, was shot and killed by a white police officer serving in a majority-white police force, the department investigated.
It found that officers in Ferguson were focused on revenue generation, a practice known as “policing for profit.” Police aggressively fined residents, primarily black residents, without much consideration of whether doing so enhanced public trust or safety.
According to the report, “The harms of Ferguson’s police and court practices are borne disproportionately by African Americans, and there is evidence that this is due in part to intentional discrimination on the basis of race.”
But was Ferguson an isolated case? And, more generally, what explains the variation in city use of fines? My colleagues – Charlotte Kirschner and Samuel B. Stone, also scholars of public finance – and I set out to find out.
Who relies on fines
In our study, we looked at a representative sample of 93 California cities from 2009 to 2014 to determine what affects how much cities fine residents and rely on fines for revenue.
We examined how fines were affected by levels of crime and public safety, city financial health and budgetary stress, and the racial composition of both the population and the law enforcement agency serving it.
We found no relationship between crime or budgetary stress and fines. However, we did find that cities with larger black populations fine residents more on a per capita basis and are more reliant on fines.
All else equal, our results showed that a 1% increase in black population is associated with a 5% increase in per capita revenue from fines and a 1% increase in share of total revenue from fines.
Furthermore, the cities seemingly most reliant on fines are the ones with the highest percentages of black residents being served by law enforcement that is whiter than its community.
Take Inglewood: In 2010, it was 43% black and 23% white, but its law enforcement agency was flipped, at nearly 40% white and 16% black. The city generated nearly 5% of its revenues from fines, more than double the average city in California.
Despite the similarities to Ferguson, it is really important for me to emphasize that our research isn’t accusing anyone of being racist or intentionally discriminating against minorities – though, to be fair, our results don’t preclude this explanation either. Rather, I’m just highlighting that even seemingly colorblind policies, like a $90 traffic citation for speeding, can have outcomes that are very much not colorblind.
Fixing the problem
Unfortunately, I wasn’t very surprised by our results. Even setting aside the Ferguson case, there’s a lot of research that points in this direction.
First, policing for profit via civil asset forfeiture and traffic tickets is, unfortunately, a documented phenomenon that alters police behavior.
Second, studies persistently find that minority residents and communities of color are more common recipients of law enforcement action and punishment.
And third, government agencies that are more representative of their communities along gender and racial dimensions have been demonstrated to reduce unfavorable outcomes for minority groups across many studies. The only thing we did was show that these things are all connected.
So, how can Americans solve this issue? I think we should start by eliminating the incentives governments might have to fine for revenue generation. Do this by pooling money from fines at the state level and redistributing it evenly instead of letting local governments make their own decisions.
Then, elect more ethnic and racial minorities to be mayors or serve on city councils and proactively focus on ensuring meaningful representation in the unelected bureaucracy. Our research demonstrates these changes should alter the distribution of fines, but making them so would probably have other beneficial effects for underserved communities as well.
If nothing else, the next time you get pulled over for speeding – especially if it’s for doing 55 in a 54 – you should ask yourself why it’s happening. It might be a lot less about how fast you were going than you’d think.
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