Blank Check: How local police fund themselves with fines and fees

For almost every city around America, fines and fees are a useful law enforcement tool, offering a way to punish everyday infractions without the immediate threat of jail or a permanent mark on a criminal record. But what happens when governments stop thinking of fines as a deterrent, but as a crucial source of funding? How does it change policing when the goal is neither to serve and protect, but to ensure that the budget doesn't take a hit? The Sunlight Foundation and MuckRock are partnering to find out.

Blank Check: How local agencies fund themselves with fines and fees

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Help fund a national look at how local police departments use fines to fund their everyday operations. Our goal is to raise $5,000, which would let us file requests to agencies in the hundred largest cities in the United States.

  • $2,500 would be used by the Sunlight Foundation to dedicate research time for the project.
  • $1,200 would be used to fund processing costs, such as stamps, envelopes, and credit card fees.
  • $1,300 would be used to fund payments to agencies that assess fees for processing the requests.

If we raise more than our target amount, we’ll use it fund more requests and dedicate more time to analysis.

Backed by Phil Mocek, Emma North-Best, Bob Woodbury, Peter Haight, and 12 others.

$1,130.00 raised out of $5,000.00.

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One of the findings that came in the aftermath of protests in Ferguson, MO was that the City of Ferguson was increasingly funding its municipal operations with the use of fines, including budgeting 23% of its FY2014 revenue from them.

As the New York Times reported, these fees included $531 for high grass and weeds in a yard, $777 for resisting arrest and $792 for failure to comply with a police officer.

With this project, you can help fund a national look at just where and how fines are used to fund everyday government operations, and help shed light on how many agencies are using fines as a backdoor way to tax their citizens with little oversight, scrutiny, or public participation.

We will be requesting five years with of data on how fines are collected from as many agencies as we can, and then working to analyze the results. The requests will all be filed publicly, so you can follow along on our progress.

We’ll be requesting the following information from agencies:

  • A copy of any official calculations of revenue coming from court fees and fines between FY 11 and FY 15, or calendar year 2010 and calendar 2014 if your government operates on a calendar year budget cycle.

  • Accounts Receivable databases that cover fines and fees paid for government services by individuals, rather than businesses. This would include Revenue Journals that cover such payments, as well as other financial statements that cover income from fees and fines.

  • Any logs of appeals of fines that is kept by this agency, including, if the log has it, outcome of the appeal, payments made, and other fields that are present in such a log.

  • A copy of contracts with any vendors that help manage the assignment, collection, or management of fees and citation information. This would include contracts with vendors that provide parking ticket software, for example, as well as court fees.

  • The record layout for any databases that are used to track the assignment, collection, or management of fees, fines and citations. This would just be a copy of the header columns in these databases, and not the information in the databases.

The latter two categories are useful because understanding what software is being used to track fees and fines can give a much greater sense of what is requestable, and opens up the possibilities of then geolocating fines against Zip Codes or even more granular data such as demographics.

Image by Daniel Hoherd via Flickr and is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

1 Article

Help uncover the nation's dependence on local court fees and fines

Help uncover the nation’s dependence on local court fees and fines

For the past year, Sunlight has been actively exploring the landscape of U.S. criminal justice data. Now they need your help to get critical data on how cities are using fines to fund their operations - at the expense of justice.

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