Local governments are increasingly finding solutions to their budget shortfalls through the criminal justice system, and it’s coming at the expense of those in society who can least afford to bear that burden, according to research by a Clemson University economics researcher.
In his research, Michael Makowsky, associate professor in the John E. Walker Department of Economics, said through local legislation, more and more municipalities are relying on revenue from fines, fees, forfeitures and asset seizures to balance their budgets.
“By turning law enforcement officers into agents of revenue, local governments are contributing to the targeting of minority populations and out-of-towners that is resulting in the criminal justice system becoming a regressive form of taxation. Such revenue-motivated law enforcement can result in negative consequences for both community trust and the provision of public safety,” the Wilbur O. and Ann Powers College of Business researcher said.
Makowsky said in the last 30 years, municipalities have become more dependent on fine and fee revenue to maintain solvency. Research conducted in 2019 showed that more than 580 municipalities in the U.S. received at least 10 percent of their budget from fines, fees and other court revenues. And, 80 of those municipalities attributed more than half of their budget to criminal justice revenue.
“What’s happening is this informal tax system of laws and policies is disproportionately burdening the poor and perverting the relationship between law enforcement officers and the communities they’re supposed to serve,” said Makowsky, who was joined in the research by Shannon Graham, recent Clemson Ph.D. graduate.
“More thought needs to be given about how laws and policies like this will actually be enforced. It doesn’t matter what we intended the consequences of a law to be if ultimately it ends up harming the very people who need our help. On top of that, research has found that trust in police is undermined and few crimes are solved through these forms of revenue generation,” he added.
When law enforcement succeeds in generating revenue for its municipality, Makowsky said, there becomes an expectation of them self-funding budgets which eventually would displace previous support from a government’s general fund.
“When revenues continue to increase through these informal taxation methods, government officials may choose to reduce general fund allocations for law enforcement, leaving police increasingly dependent on their own revenue generation just to maintain their budgetary needs,” Makowsky added.
Makowsky said one way to change fiscal incentives underlying revenue-motivated law enforcement is to have that revenue remitted to the state government for redistribution back to municipalities, which disconnects the incentive from any one arrest, any one conviction or from any judicial decision.
“So, this local fee is spread across everyone else in the state before a smaller portion of it is redistributed back to you,” Makowsky said in an NPR interview. “You’re not keeping that dollar anymore because it’s going into a bigger pot. In doing so, a state can begin the steady process of weaning local governments off dependence on criminal justice revenue.”
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