Addicted to Fines: Methodology and Notes for States
For our report on fine revenues, we constructed a database of financial data compiled from thousands of financial audits, reports filed to state agencies and other data.
Many states maintain detailed revenue data for their local governments. We reviewed the most recent data for these states, as described below.
For local governments in states without data, we flagged governments for further review by analyzing 20 years of data from the Census Bureau’s Census of Governments and Annual Survey of State and Local Government Finances. Any governments reporting relatively high fine revenues either as a share of total general revenues or on a per capita basis were flagged. We further identified additional governments for review that reported high numbers of law enforcement personnel per capita in annual FBI surveys, operated traffic cameras or were mentioned in news reports.
For any government flagged for review or identified in state datasets, we then reviewed its latest annual audit or financial report filed to state agencies. All figures in our analysis were recorded from these documents, with the vast majority reflecting fiscal year 2017 or 2018 data. Financial statements were obtained from local government websites, state repositories, the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board's EMMA database, among other sources. For cities and towns without financial information available online, we contacted the government and requested its latest financial report.
No national standards outline how much fine revenues localities should or should not be collecting. For our analysis, we assess fine revenues using two common measures. One is total fine revenues as a share of all revenues reported in a government’s general fund. Some jurisdictions, though, allocate all or a portion of collected fines in police or court funds separate from the general fund. Our second measure considers fines collected in all governmental funds on a per capita basis, calculated using a jurisdiction’s estimated number of adults reported in 2017 five-year American Community Survey data.
Our primary revenue measure is defined to include fines, punitive fees, other court revenues and forfeitures. The majority of governments simply report “fines” or “fines and forfeitures” line items in their financial statements. (Forfeitures generally account for very little revenues.) Others report line items that appear to be broader, such as “court revenues.” Non-punitive fees and charges were excluded.
We recorded revenue figures for any jurisdiction that met at least one of two criteria: fines and court revenues accounted for more than 10 percent of general revenues, or annual fine revenues exceeded $100 per adult resident. Most governments met both criteria. Our final sample consisted of 840 cities, towns, villages and counties. While our data should reflect the vast majority of all governments reporting at least $100,000 in fines exceeding our revenue thresholds for reporting, they do not include all such governments.
What’s Not Included
Governments reporting less than $100,000 in fines or other court revenues were excluded from our analysis. Revenue data for some governments was unavailable as their financial statements didn’t report line items for fines or court revenues, or aggregated them with unrelated revenues. A number of additional governments without financial audits posted online did not respond to requests for information, including many in Alabama, Kentucky and Texas. For these reasons, our numbers represent underestimates.
The only existing national sources of local government revenues are the Census Bureau’s Census of Governments and the Annual Survey of State and Local Government Finances. Many governments do not participate in the surveys, however, and checking figures for jurisdictions reporting high fine totals showed the data to be highly unreliable as survey figures were often far different than those published in financial audits. Researchers have used the Census data to report aggregate national totals, but caution against citing survey figures for individual governments.
Alabama: No state agencies maintain local government revenue data pertaining to fines and fees. As in other states, we developed a list of governments with potentially high fine revenues using other data sources. The Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts provided some audits, but most small jurisdictions have not filed financial reports with the agency for many years. We requested financial audits from jurisdictions without available reports. About a dozen cities and towns previously reporting high fine revenues in Census Bureau surveys did not respond to records requests.
Alaska: The state does not publish detailed revenue data for local governments. The Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, though, does maintain an online system of financial statements for cities and boroughs. No financial statements we reviewed met our fine revenue criteria for inclusion. It should be noted, however, that many municipalities could not be recorded as they did not report separate line items in their statements for fines or court revenues.
Arizona: We reviewed the latest financial statements for most localities in the state; only one met our criteria for inclusion.
Arkansas: The state does not publish detailed revenue data for local governments. We reviewed financial statements for local governments filed with the Arkansas Legislative Audit. In recording fine revenues, we did not count jail fees, which counties charge municipalities for housing their prisoners. A large number of very small governments reporting high reliance on fines and forfeitures were excluded as they did not meet our $100,000 minimum threshold.
California: We reviewed FY 2017 revenue data for all cities, as reported by the California State Controller. We then pulled financial statements for localities with relatively high fine revenues in the data, along with those previously reporting high fine revenues in the Census of Governments. Several governments met criteria for inclusion from fines on a per capita basis, but none exceeded 10 percent of general fund revenues as localities tend to have larger local tax bases than elsewhere.
Colorado: We reviewed local government revenue data published by the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. Financial filings were pulled for governments with relatively high fine revenues from the data.
Connecticut: No governments reported fine revenues that met our criteria for inclusion.
Delaware: The state does not maintain local government financial data or a repository of local government financial statements. We filed individual requests for some audits unavailable online. A few governments did not respond to requests.
Florida: We reviewed revenue data for counties and municipalities published by the state Office of Economic and Demographic Research. We then pulled financial statements for localities with relatively high fine revenues in the data, along with those previously reporting high fine revenues to the Census of Governments or other sources.
Georgia: We reviewed 2015-2018 data from the Tax and Expenditure Data Center at the University of Georgia Carl Vinson Institute for Government, which compiles local government revenue data for the vast majority (but not all) cities in the state. We also reviewed revenue totals reported in prior Census of Governments data and news reports. Financial statements were pulled for any governments with relatively high fine revenues from these sources. We reviewed the most recent statement for each local government available on the University of Georgia’s GeorgiaDATA website or local government websites. For those not available, we requested and obtained the latest financials filed with the state Department of Audits and Accounts.
Hawaii: No governments reported fine revenues that met our criteria for inclusion.
Idaho: No governments reported fine revenues that met our criteria for inclusion. Many governments don’t list fines in their annual financial reports, however.
Illinois: Local government financial data reported to the state Comptroller’s Office was reviewed for fiscal years 2018 and 2017. The most recent annual financial reports (also filed with the Comptroller’s Office) were pulled for jurisdictions reporting high fine revenues. Many county governments and a limited number of cities grouped fine revenues with fees or charges that were likely not punitive-related on their financial reports. These revenues or those reported without enough detail to make a determination were excluded.
Indiana: We compiled and reviewed local government budget data published on the Indiana Gateway for Government Units website. The most recent annual financial reports, also available on the Gateway website, were pulled for jurisdictions reporting relatively high fine revenues, along with those identified from national sources. Note that Indiana differs from most other states in that its localities have many separate funds rather than allocating most revenues to the general fund. As a result, few governments reported fines exceeding 10 percent of general revenues as fines were instead reported in other funds.
Iowa: We reviewed annual financial reports filed with the State Auditor's office. Only one jurisdiction met our criteria for inclusion.
Kansas: The state does not publish revenue data for local governments. We identified jurisdictions with potentially high fine revenues using national sources, as described above, and then pulled the latest audits listed on the state Department of Administration website.
Kentucky: Kentucky localities are not required to file annual financial reports with the Department for Local Government or other state agencies. We reviewed reports for governments with publicly available financial audits and requested reports for a number of smaller governments with relatively high fine totals reported in prior Census of Governments surveys. Of those that responded, none met our criteria for inclusion. Seven small cities and towns did not respond to requests, however.
Louisiana: The Louisiana Legislative Auditor maintains an online repository of local governments’ financial reports. We pulled and reviewed the most recent annual reports for all cities, parishes, towns and villages in the state. As is the case elsewhere, some governments had filed more recent reports than others.
Maine: No governments reported fine revenues that met our criteria for inclusion.
Maryland: We reviewed data reported in the “Local Government Finances in Maryland” report published by the state Department of Legislative Services. The most recent financial statements for jurisdictions with relatively high fine revenues were then obtained online or provided by the Department of Legislative Services.
Massachusetts: Our calculations of fiscal year 2018 data reported by the Department of Revenue show no local governments reported fines accounting for more than 10 percent of general revenues. Several jurisdictions in the state, though, did not report fine or forfeiture totals on their annual financial reports.
Minnesota: Most local governments reporting fine revenues fell below our $100,000 threshold. No governments reported fine revenues that met our criteria for inclusion.
Mississippi: The state does not publish revenue data for localities. We identified jurisdictions with potentially high fine revenues using national sources, as described above. Audits were then pulled from the State Auditor website.
Missouri: We reviewed data on municipal court disbursements/collections from the state Office of State Courts Administrator. Financial statements were then pulled from the State Auditor website for jurisdictions with courts reporting relatively high fine revenues per capita. Localities also file separate addendum forms specifying fines applicable to the state revenue cap. We only recorded figures listed in the primary financial statements to ensure consistency across states; amounts reported on addendum forms do not cover all types of fines.
Montana: We downloaded and reviewed a file with summarized annual financial information for localities published on the Montana Data Portal website. We then pulled the latest financial reports for about 20 local governments with higher fine revenues. Most local governments maintain small budgets, so reported fines and forfeitures fell below our $100,000 threshold for inclusion.
Nebraska: No governments reported fine revenues that met our criteria for inclusion.
Nevada: The state does not publish revenue data for local governments. We reviewed financial reports for most localities in the state, and only a few met our fine revenue criteria for inclusion.
New Jersey: New Jersey’s localities report finances differently than those in other states. Amounts recorded as general fund totals reflect those realized in cash from the current fund. New Jersey governments generally report municipal court fines and related costs, but do not list line items for forfeitures.
New Mexico: The local government division of the state Department of Finance and Administration provided Governing with all localities’ financial filings covering the fiscal year ending on June 30, 2018. Most localities reported zero or very insignificant fine and forfeiture revenues.
New York: We queried and reviewed local government revenue data published by the Office of the New York State Comptroller. Governments with relatively high fine revenues were identified for further review. We recorded figures from the most recent comprehensive annual financial report (CAFR) for those governments with available reports. Many of the small towns and villages instead file annual financial report update documents to the State Comptroller. For jurisdictions filing these reports, we followed recommendations from State Comptroller staff in computing totals. The general (A) and townwide highway (DA) funds were added to compute general fund revenue totals. Governmental fund totals were calculated by adding revenues for all funds reported with the exceptions of funds E, K, M, S, T and W.
North Carolina: Local governments in the state typically do not report fine and forfeiture revenues in their annual financial reports. By state law, fine and forfeiture revenues are appropriated to public schools, while court fees are mostly remitted to the state. No governments reported fine revenues that met our criteria for inclusion.
Ohio: Local governments file annual financial reports with the Auditor of State’s Office. We reviewed data from these filings and then pulled the latest financial statements for those with relatively high fine and forfeiture revenues. Reports for villages (unlike cities and townships) group fine revenues with licenses and permits. For this reason, we raised the revenue thresholds for including villages in our analysis. Ohio villages were only included if prior news reports suggested they generated significant traffic enforcement or camera tickets and met one of the following criteria: 1) Reported fine, license and permit revenue exceeding 20 percent of general fund revenues 2) Reported fine, license and permit revenue exceeding $200 per capita. (Most of the villages included far exceeded these revenues.)
Oklahoma: The state does not publish annual revenue data for its localities. We identified jurisdictions with potentially high fine revenues using national sources, as described above, and then pulled their latest audit listed on the Oklahoma State Auditor & Inspector website.
Oregon: The state does not publish annual revenue data for its localities. We identified jurisdictions with potentially high fine revenues using national sources, as described above, and then pulled the latest financial reports from the Oregon Secretary of State website.
Pennsylvania: We reviewed statewide municipal annual financial data published by the Department of Community and Economic Development. Annual financial reports filed to the agency were then reviewed. The latest available reports at time of publication were for fiscal year 2017. Note that Pennsylvania is the only state that prohibits municipal departments from using speed radar devices for enforcement.
Rhode Island: No governments reported fine revenues that met our criteria for inclusion.
South Carolina: We reviewed revenue data provided by the State Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office. Audits for localities with high fine revenues were then requested and obtained from the South Carolina Treasurer’s Office; other audits were available online.
For most local governments, we recorded revenue amounts listed in the Statement of Revenues and Expenditures. South Carolina local governments are also required to provide a supplemental Schedule of Fines, Assessments and Surcharges with their financial statements that details which governments retained various revenues. It appears that some included court revenues collected and remitted to the state in the amounts reported in the Statement of Revenues and Expenditures. For these, we instead recorded the amounts listed in the supplemental schedule that the locality retained, excluding revenue remitted to the state. (For further information, refer to the notes provided for each individual government.)
South Dakota: No governments reported fine revenues that met our criteria for inclusion.
Tennessee: We identified jurisdictions with potentially high fine revenues using national sources, as described above, and then pulled the latest financial reports from the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury website.
Texas: The state does not maintain complete revenue data for local governments. However, we queried the Texas Office of Court Administration’s online system for data on municipal court revenues for all jurisdictions. For jurisdictions reporting somewhat high per capita court revenues retained, we sought annual financial statements. Annual financial statements for the state’s smaller municipalities were largely unavailable as local governments are not required to file their financial reports with state agencies. So we filed individual requests for the most recent financial statement for nearly 100 Texas jurisdictions with high per capita revenues whose reports were not available online. Some jurisdictions did not respond to requests. For these, we recorded only total fines per capita for the fiscal year ending in September 2018, as obtained from the Office of Court Administration data. (See individual note for each jurisdiction.) Because calculating the fines share of general revenue was not possible for the many governments not providing financial statements, the numbers of governments we report to have exceeded different general revenue share thresholds represent significant underestimates for Texas.
Additionally, some cities reviewed likely include court revenues collected but remitted to the state in their financial statements. (The financial statements generally do not denote revenues kept by the city vs. remitted to the state, but Office of Court Administration data suggests most do not include revenues remitted to the state.) Such jurisdictions reporting fine revenues much higher than amounts kept, according to state courts data, are noted individually.
Utah: We obtained and reviewed local government revenue data from an online state repository. Individual financial reports were then pulled for governments with relatively high fine revenues via the State Auditor website.
Vermont: Most local governments reporting fine revenues fell below our $100,000 threshold for inclusion.
Virginia: We reviewed financial data for Virginia local governments published by the state Auditor of Public Accounts. Annual financial reports filed with the Auditor of Public Accounts were then reviewed for localities with relatively high fine totals from the data. No information was available for many small towns as only jurisdictions with populations of 3,500 or more are required to submit annual financial reports to the state. However, we contacted and requested financial reports for a limited number of individual governments with high fine amounts previously reported in Census of Governments surveys.
Washington: We reviewed local government revenue data published by the Washington State Auditor. Individual financial reports were then pulled for governments with relatively high fine revenues.
West Virginia: Annual financial audits were pulled from the State Auditor's Chief Inspector Division website. Some local governments had not filed audits in several years. Many small jurisdictions derive a large share of revenues from fines and fees, but fell below our $100,000 minimum for inclusion.
Wisconsin: We reviewed county and municipal revenue data published by the state Department of Revenue. Financial reports for governments with relatively high fine revenues were then requested and provided by the department.
Wyoming: Only limited financial data was available as local governments do not report revenues to the state and most also don’t post their audited financial reports online. No governments with available financials reported fine revenues meeting our criteria for inclusion.