Monday, May 27, 2024

Report: Louisiana state and local governments racking up the fines and fees

by BIZ Magazine

By Victor Skinner | The Center Square contributor

State and local governments in Louisiana collect some of the most fines and fees in the nation on a per capita basis, a reality that undermines the intent of the legal system, according to a new study.

The Reason Foundation released a policy brief on Tuesday that summarizes existing research on the effects of fines and fees in the justice system, as well as a data visualization tool that provides a broader perspective on the situation in each state.

Reason used data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Annual Survey of State and Local Government Finances to expose revenues generated by fines and fees in 2020, the most recent data year available, and to rank states based on per capita collections.

The results show local governments in Louisiana collected more than $146 million in fines and fees in 2020, equating to $31.49 per person. That’s a higher rate than all but six states: California at $31.87, Wyoming at $33.43, Georgia at $35.16, Texas at $40.37, Illinois at $50.07, and New York at $69.60.

Those figures compare to a national average of $27.00 per person in 2020, when governments nationwide collected nearly $9 billion.

The policy brief explains that states with higher per capita collections depend more on the fines and fees, which incentivizes law enforcement and the court system to issue financial penalties to maintain revenues.

“The primary responsibilities of the legal system are to promote public safety and to provide for justice. Pressure to raise revenue, at best, undermines — and at worst, directly conflicts with — those responsibilities,” the brief read. “When incentives are misaligned, police departments and court systems become more concerned with ‘taxation by citation’ than carrying out their core functions. Such conflicts of interest also serve to undermine the legitimacy of the justice system among the public.”

A breakdown of data from 2017, the last year detailed estimates are available, shows at least 482 local governments derived 10% or more of general revenues from fines and forfeits, while in 176 jurisdictions the percentage topped 20%.

A total of 93 local governments relied on fines and forfeits for at least half of general revenue in 2017, Reason reports.

The brief cites numerous examples of local governments that rely heavily on the fine revenues, including Anacoco, a Vernon Parish town near Fort Polk which derived more than 90% of its general revenue from fines and forfeitures.

The Reason report detailed how those fines impact residents — particularly low-income residents, juveniles and minorities — and the consequences for failure to pay, from driver’s license suspensions to revocation of voting rights to incarceration.

The nonprofit think tank offers several recommendations for lawmakers to consider in the report, including income-based fines, ability-to-pay assessments, and “non-financial intermediate sanctions,” such as community service, treatment, electronic monitoring, or community programs.

Recommended reforms involve eliminating user fees and poverty penalties, funding courts from state budgets, developing a standardized tool to determine ability to pay and scale fines, alternatives to monetary sanctions, eliminating all fines and fees in juvenile cases, ending driver’s license suspensions for failure to pay, and collecting and publishing data on court debt and collection practices.

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