When it comes to state policies that lend themselves to high fines and court fees, Georgia is the state where citizens are most at risk for such charges, while North Carolina is the state with the most protections, according to a new report.
Although the report from the libertarian public interest firm Institute for Justice
does not include data on the practices of cities or counties, it does assess state-level policies that make it more likely local jurisdictions would be able to use fines and fees as a way of generating revenue, as well as other policies connected to the practice that can harm residents, such as the ability to suspend driver's licenses for unpaid fines.
"This is a national issue," Bill Maurer, managing attorney at IJ, said. "[It's] an issue that has been quietly oppressing people across the country. ... We wanted to think, 'What are the red flags that would essentially allow cities to use taxation by citation to raise revenue?'"
Over the past five years, the issue of high fines and fees levied by the American criminal justice system has received increasing attention, but much remains unknown about the scope of the issue, partly because it spans so many small jurisdictions nationwide. The report is an effort to fill in some of those gaps and provide a road map for other researchers, IJ research editor Mindy Menjou explained.
Overall, the report's state rankings don't map easily onto party affiliation, region, population size or demographics. States as different as Georgia, Rhode Island, Nevada and Kansas all have a spot among the 10 states with policies that most lend themselves to fines and fees abuse. Meanwhile, the 10 best-ranked states include North Carolina, California, Minnesota and Alaska.
"It's less red or blue and more green," Maurer said.
The thing that was the best predictor of a state's ranking, Menjou said, was actually whether or not the state has a municipal court system in addition to its state court system.
Municipal courts, she explained, are where it is most common to see fines and fees used as a means of raising income for the municipality, making them ripe for abuse.
Without municipal courts, she and Maurer explained, 31 of the 52 factors researchers examined — such as whether defendants in municipal court have a right to a jury trial or the ethics rules for municipal courts — simply don't apply, putting those states ahead of the game.
However, among states with municipal courts, only two, Kentucky and Missouri, cap the amount of revenue that municipalities are allowed to raise through such courts, giving towns in the states an incentive to use local courts as moneymaking institutions.
In Georgia, the state with a system ranked as the most vulnerable to fines and fees abuse, there is no state limit on the amount of revenue municipal courts can raise for a town, or on where the money can be spent, the report indicates. Moreover, the municipal courts are not funded by the state, meaning that the courts are often responsible for generating their own funding.
Ethics standards for municipal court judges are also rated as only "partial," according to the report.
State law also does not prohibit such courts from incarcerating someone who cannot pay their fines and fees, and allows municipal courts to suspend driver's licenses over nonpayment, the report found.
Representatives for the Georgia Judicial Council and the Administrative Office of the Courts did not respond to a request for comment.
The report only deals in the potential for abuse, and does not examine actual behavior in cities and towns within each state, but there is some evidence that high fines and fees are common in Georgia.
A previous Institute for Justice report looking at three cities in Georgia found that 14% to 25% of their revenue came from municipal fines and fees. Moreover, the revenue from fines and fees seemed to go up after the 2008 recession, when other tax revenue dropped off, and then declined after 2012 as the economic recovery began to bring in other tax revenue again.
The city of Doraville in DeKalb County, Georgia, is currently facing a lawsuit alleging that it depends on fines and fees for up to 30% of its revenue, and that citations for things such as growing high weeds or exiting a turn lane before reaching the intersection are common.
Meanwhile, North Carolina, which ranked as the state with the most protections, does not allow municipalities to set up their own courts, which automatically prevents local governments from using such courts as moneymakers.
The state is also one of only three that prohibit driver's license revocation as a punishment for unpaid fines and fees, provided the person has demonstrated that they are unable to afford the amount.
On the ground, however, things are still not perfect in North Carolina.
A lawsuit filed in 2018 alleges that the state's Division of Motor Vehicles has a policy of automatically suspending licenses if outstanding fines are unpaid after 40 days. The case is still ongoing. In 2017, Durham County estimated that 20% of its adult population had seen their licenses suspended for failure to pay.
Maurer and Menjou said that across the country there are a number of things states can do to reduce the potential abuse of fines and fees, from making the judiciary more independent from the financial consequences of its rulings to dissolving municipal courts altogether. Overall, they said, most states are in need of additional protections for citizens when it comes to fines and fees.
"Very, very few states do anything to restrain their municipalities' incentive to seek fines and fees," Menjou said.
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--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.