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Why the Police Shouldn’t Be Armed Debt Collectors

Reforms that address police violence against communities of color won't be effective unless we reduce governments' over-reliance on revenue from fines and court fees for minor offenses.

Teon Smith is terrified of law enforcement. Smith, a Black single mother living in Montgomery, Ala., has never been convicted of a crime, but she has traffic tickets she can't afford to pay. As a result, her driver's license has been suspended and she must return to court frequently to explain why she hasn't paid. If she misses a hearing, the court could issue an arrest warrant. If that were to happen, she'd risk being locked away from her children, another victim of a criminal-justice system that disproportionately impacts the lives of people of color.

Sadly, Smith's situation is not unique. Fines and court fees stemming from traffic stops and minor municipal-code violations are big money makers for hundreds of local governments across the country. But when governments rely on those revenues, people of color end up funding the police forces that routinely terrorize them.

Deploying police to impose debt and using the justice system to collect it undermine public safety. A 2018 study found that police departments in cities that rely heavily on court debt as a revenue source solve violent crimes at lower rates than those that rely on more equitable revenue sources. Possible reasons for this include pressure to focus on debt collection instead of police work and distrust of police by people who perceive them as debt collectors with guns and badges.

The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other Black people at the hands of police have sparked worldwide protests and enraged communities that are routinely subject to police violence. As we are inundated with images of law enforcement rolling heavily armored vehicles down residential streets, we can no longer ignore the devastating toll that over-policing has taken on communities of color.

In response to the ongoing protests and calls to rethink policing, state, local and federal policymakers have started to propose reforms. But these reforms won't effectively address police violence unless they also address fines-and-fees policies that criminalize poverty, routinely result in incarceration, transform police officers into armed debt collectors, and bleed intergenerational wealth from Black families, who on average hold $10 in net worth for every $100 that white families hold.

The impact of these policies on families is broader than many might realize. Most people with crushing court debt turn to family members for help, meaning that those who haven't even incurred fines and fees are driven to take out payday loans and sacrifice necessities like food and medicine, using their savings to keep loved ones from being jailed for nonpayment.

As pandemic-driven jobless claims and layoffs rise and cities project reduced property-tax revenues due to delinquencies and foreclosures, policymakers may be tempted to fund government services, including police departments, by increasing the imposition and enforcement of fines and fees. That's what happened following the 2008 financial crisis. But asking police officers to generate revenue and act as debt collectors creates excessive and unnecessary interactions between the police and the public that too often lead to police violence and perpetuate economic and racial injustice.

To address police violence effectively, state and local governments must stop relying on fines and fees, analyze the impact of existing revenue sources on communities of color, and implement equitable revenue policies. State policymakers should prioritize legislation granting localities sufficient taxation authority to provide a more stable and fairer revenue base. Policymakers should also cap the percentage of local revenue that can be generated from law enforcement and the courts.

In Alabama and many other states, another important step is to end the practice of suspending drivers' licenses in connection with anything but dangerous driving. In addition to reducing the burden created by fines and fees, leaving people free to drive makes economic sense. Studies show that people who lack licenses struggle to find and maintain employment. Letting people drive means letting them work.

Congress also has an important role to play. State and local governments that commit to reducing and capping the amount of revenue they receive from fines and fees should receive additional federal funding, particularly as they struggle to balance their budgets in the midst of the pandemic.

Back in Montgomery, Teon Smith desperately wants a job, but her suspended license disqualifies her from some and makes others impossible to get. She pays what she can on her traffic tickets and continues to worry about an arrest warrant that would have devastating consequences for her and her family. Policymakers must act now to end government policies that lead to unnecessary interactions between the public and police and worsen the cycle of poverty experienced by Smith and so many others across the country.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

An attorney at the National Consumer Law Center
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