Debtor s’ Prison [sic].” Credit: Bill Smith

July 17, 2017; Washington Informer

In a study published in the May issue of the Journal of Politics on city government use of fines and court fees as a revenue stream, the authors found that as the proportion of black citizenry increases, so too does the likelihood that a city government will use fines and fees to raise revenue. The study analyzed more than 9,000 cities using data from the Census of Governments provided by the U.S. Census Bureau. These systems often act like debtor’s prisons.

Simple fines implemented to raise revenue can lead to crippling downward spirals when court dates are missed or fines can’t be paid. The authors find that cities with the largest proportion of black residents pay as much as $19 more per person per year than cities with the smallest proportion of black residents.

It gets worse. The study also calls out prior evidence indicating racial bias in pedestrian stops. Citing further studies, the authors suggest that politicians are more likely to communicate with constituents with similar descriptive traits and that citizens are more likely to communicate with same race representatives. Taken together, this paints a grim picture of local governance and exploitative fines. These are regressive taxes that hurt the poor, and insofar as minorities are targeted by police, it hurts poor minorities.

The authors do find room for hope, however. Increasing the descriptive representation of minorities in the local legislature significantly decreases the likelihood that a city will implement these exploitative revenue measures. In the study, having a black city councilor—just one—dramatically reduces the likelihood of the use of fines. (The authors do offer a word of caution: due to data limitations, it is difficult to suss out whether these policies are race based or if they target the poor and minorities because they are less likely to contest the fine.)

The authors cite evidence that policing for revenue can lead to disenfranchising voters, as studies have shown that contact with law enforcement can decrease democratic participation. Small, local nonprofits can make a big difference in these cases. Making sure citizens, especially those likely to be disenfranchised, remain engaged in the civics of their city is the first step. Nonprofits can help by supporting efforts to education citizenry and open lines of communication between politicians and the electorate. Furthermore, having representation in the political process will go a long way. It is not easy to decide which of these is more important, as one hand feeds the other, but there is a measurable effect of descriptive representation and these regressive policies. Finally, nonprofits can fund studies on bias in policing and legal policy. A public understanding of the dynamics of the problem is a powerful thing.—Sean Watterson