Modern Tax Farmers Turn Fines and Court Fees Into a Lucrative Business For Governments and Favored Companies Alike


What could be worse than bypassing the messy process of imposing taxes to instead use fines and court fees as revenue-generating tools so that people are penalized for exactly the wrong reasons? How about then leveraging the efficiency of private firms to collect those fines and fees, and levy more of their own, so that you're deputizing for-profit companies to wield the coercive power of the state, but largely divorced from those vestigial legal restraints and constitutional concerns that hobble the state itself?

The New York Times tells a woeful tale "about the mushrooming of fines and fees levied by money-starved towns across the country and the for-profit businesses that administer the system. The result is that growing numbers of poor people, like Ms. Ray, are ending up jailed and in debt for minor infractions." The system is a lot like the old-fashioned practice of tax-farming, under which favored private businesses would purchase from the state the right to collect taxes, keeping whatever they could shake loose above what they'd forked over for the privilege. The practice wasn't exactly popular, since the tax farmers had every incentive to twist arms and pad bills to make sure they at least broke even (and they generally did much better).

I fought the law and the tax man won.

But the current practice is, in some ways worse, since the "tax farmers" aren't collecting official taxes — they're gathering up minor fines and fees that most local governments can't be bothered to collect themselves, and which were never intended for raising revenue. The "Ms. Ray" of Childersburg, Alabama, mentioned above, "was handed over to a private probation company and jailed" after failing to pay a fine for speeding and having her license revoked — because, she claims, she was told the wrong date for the court appearance (an error that produces lots of hits if you Google it). The original $179 speeding ticket turned into a budget-busting $1,500 whopper. Even after being tossed in the can she was "charged an additional fee for each day behind bars."

Like Ms. Ray, the other people mentioned by the Times aren't necessarily flawless innocents. There's a man who fell behind on child support payments, another who was fined for public drunkenness … After the fees and fines tallied up to levels that these already cash-strapped individuals couldn't afford, they found themselves in modern debtors prison.

These fees and fines add up, first of all, because the folks imposing them are directly benefiting from them.

Stephen B. Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights, who teaches at Yale Law School, said courts were increasingly using fees "for such things as the retirement funds for various court officials, law enforcement functions such as police training and crime laboratories, victim assistance programs and even the court's computer system." He added, "In one county in Pennsylvania, 26 different fees totaling $2,500 are assessed in addition to the fine."

Officials can get away with this, the Conference of State Court Administrators said in a recent report (PDF) on the growing phenomenon of courts turning into revenue generators, because:

Most courts agree that court costs imposed in criminal proceedings must bear a reasonable
relationship to the expenses of prosecution …

This line of cases generally holds that as long as a criminal assessment is reasonably related to the costs of administering the criminal justice system, its imposition will not render the courts "tax gatherers" in violation of the separation of powers doctrine, and that costs may be imposed without a precise relationship to the actual cost of the particular

So courts are supposed to benefit from any fees they impose, which creates an incentive to rack 'em up, And that's before the modern tax farmers add "enrollment fees" and their own regular charges.

Theoretically, defendants in these cases, which involve misdemeanors, are entitled to legal counsel, but informing them of that right and delivering such representation doesn't seem to be a hugely pressing priority for anybody involved.

The end result is an old-fashioned mercantilist or modern corporatist (everything old is new again!) crony system of powerful officials and favored companies teaming up to milk people who have limited resources with which to resist.

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  1. Tax farmers? For the love of God our elites really do want to become the Ancien Regime.

    1. My brother’s law firm has, over the last three years, moved the bulk of their practice to qui tam lawsuits.

      I’m pretty heartsick over it.

      1. I would feel better if he just became a male prostitute or robbed houses for a living.

        1. We’ve had several … ahem … frank, bordering on direct exchanges on the subject. He knows a fair bit about Roman history, so my arguments are not falling on deaf ears

          One problem is that he’d have to walk away from a recent, hard-won partnership, and that’s not easy, especially with a wife and newborn.

  2. Seems a bit like how bailiffs are used in Britain to collect council taxes etc.

  3. This is an amazingly awful idea. Just like red-light cameras and asset forfeiture, it incentivizes the creation and enforcement of bullshit laws for profit.

    1. Yes. Asset forfeiture mostly happens without for-profit companies being involved, but obviously the sucking is more important than the profit. (I can listen to arguments that the outsourcing makes it worse.)

      There are a number of districts who have imposed similar fines and jailing of people without using private collection agencies.

      1. (I can listen to arguments that the outsourcing makes it worse.)

        The sucking lasts longer when the government farms in-house. The pensions for public sector employees keep sucking until the employee (and his spouse) dies.

    2. The best thing for getting rid of bad laws is ruthless enforcement of them.

      1. So what’s the best thing for getting rid of you?

        1. Playing Rod Stewart.

          1. I respected your contrarianism, but I can’t respect a man who hates The Faces.

          2. Somebody somewhere In the heat of the night Looking pretty dangerous Running out of patience

            Tonight in the city You wont find any pity Hearts are being twisted Another lover cheated, cheated

            In the bars and the cafes, passion In the streets and the alleys, passion A lot of pretending, passion Everybody searching, passion

            Once in love you’re never out of danger One hot night spent with a stranger All you wanted was somebody to hold on to yeah Passion, passion Passion, passion

            New york, moscow, passion Hong kong, tokyo, passion Paris and bangkok, passion A lotta people aint got, passion

            Hear it in the radio, passion Read it in the papers, passion Hear it in the churches, passion See it in the school yards, passion

            Once in love you’re never out of danger One hot night spent with a stranger All you wanted was somebody to hold on to yeah Once in love you’re never out of danger One hot night spent with a stranger All you wanted was somebody to hold on to yeah

            Alone in your bed at night, passion Its half past midnight, passion As you turn out your sidelight, passion Something aint right, passion

            There’s no passion, there’s no passion There’s no passion, I need passion You need passion, we need passion Cant live without passion Wont live without passion

            Even the president needs passion Everybody I know needs some passion Some people die and kill for passion Nobody admits they need passion Some people are scared of passion Yeah passion

          3. Say what you want, I saw Rod Stewart in 1981 and it was a helluva show. The crowd was rowdy and Rod made fun of the “local constabulary”[B’ham AL] as they attempted to keep order. At one point Rod swung the mic stand within inches of the head of a cop who was hassling people at the barricade.He then engaged the cop verbally off mic. The cop backed off.

            Red lips hair and fingernails
            I hear you’re a mean old Jezabel
            Lets go up stairs and read my tarot cards

  4. History repeats itself? No way! Color me shocked! 😮

  5. Here in Pasadena, CA the City Council just decided to discontinue its red light cameras – not a money maker.…..meras.html

    But they made up for it by outlawing plastic bags.

  6. Isn’t this one of the models for how a court system would work in ancapitopia?

    1. No. Fuck, you’re stupid.

      1. Pretty sure I’ve read this suggestion in various ancap literature. Machinery of Freedom, perhaps? I’ll have to dig it out from the coal dungeon and look.

        1. Sure, you do that. Of course, you’re still a stupid fuck who hasn’t addressed that there is a monopoly here. Does being a mendacious fuck cause you any pain, or does it actually bring you pleasure?

          1. Yeah, competing courts all trying to get you to pay fines and fees would be much better.

            1. Jesus fuck, you’re even stupider than I could imagine. How would all the courts be trying to get you to pay fines for the same thing? Do you even understand the fucking concept at all?

              1. Courts X, Y, and Z have all outlawed dumping paint into the ocean under penalty of a 0.5 oz Au fine, and you are seen by clients of all three courts doing so.

                You can’t give them separate jurisdiction in ancapitopia, because then you have a force monopoly within that area.

                1. You just can’t resist showing how fucking stupid you are. It’s like a compulsion.

                  Courts don’t outlaw things, you fucking chimp. You haven’t the faintest idea how this is supposed to work, but you keep talking.

                  You have severe mental problems. You should seek professional help. This is not me joking. You have severe problems.

                  1. I’m not the one spewing insults and obscenities in every post in this subthread, Epi.

                  2. And of course, in common law systems courts do outlaw things. And that’s one of the models for criminal “law enforcement” (though I’m sure there’s another term for it) in an ancap system. Maybe not the one you prefer, but one of them.

                2. Yes, courts X, Y, and Z all wish to impose a fine on you, however you are contracted with court A for your legal protection. Since you are not under the jurisdiction of either X, Y, or Z they all have to go to Court A and ask it for the permission to fine you, which A may or may not allow based on your contract with it.

                  But why would A cooperate with X, Y, or Z against the wishes of it’s client? Well because if they didn’t then they will eventually get a reputation of being non cooperative with all of the other courts who will begin to ignore it and levy the fines/penalties on A’s customers without permission causing either all of A’s customers to flee for a court which can protect them or forcing A into a shooting war it cannot win.

                  Now why would A protect you against X, Y, and Z? Pretty obvious, if they don’t protect their customers from predation by other courts then again all their customers leave for courts which can protect them and they go out of business.

                  In the end the competitive nature of the system would force common sense to be applied and (assuming you were guilty) your court would collect a single fine that was divided between the other 3 courts along some negotiated settlement based on the harm caused to each courts customers.

                  Do I think this is a perfect system? No, I think it would often devolve into open warfare over binary issues like abortion but I cannot axiomatically say that it would in the aggregate work any less well that nation state based law.

                  1. See, this is how you respond, Epi. No f-words, no insults, just logical reasoning.

                    I still think ancapism is fantasy, because it’s hard to see how competition would be maintained, but at least this is a respectable reply.

    2. No, the government still has a monopoly on the court system.

      1. I thought* there was no govt in ancapism.

        * just being modest, I actually know for sure.

  7. Dipshit Scavenger Hunt: Find the most prominent statist calling this an example of capitalism.

    Tulpa’s not prominent.

    1. That was good, if mean and wrong.

    2. The only thing prominent about Tulpa is his forehead.

      1. Now that was just adolescent.

      2. Don’t forget how prominent his delusions are.

    3. Reading the news on this site makes me sick. Scavenging through those sites would probably kill me.

  8. Just saying the word “Berkheimer” is enough to strike terror into the soul of anyone who lives in a small town in PA.

    1. Eh? I’ve never particularly had problems with them. Quite the opposite in fact, in my area they were notorious for not assessing the fine for failing to pay quarterly estimates as long as you were paid up at the end of the year.

  9. Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!

  10. I read an op-ed about this issue on some neocon website a few months ago. Except they didn’t think it was an “issue” because they cheered the privatization of gov’t services as being capitalistic and efficient.

    1. The Reason Foundation cheered the “privatization” of Chicago’s parking meters — which has turned out (surprise!) to be a horrible deal for residents.

      Privatization is not a panacea; you need competition to get the real benefits.

      1. Well, an inherent feature of privatization is competition during the contracting process. What can happen though is a lack of due diligence on the part of the contract writers leading to:

        1) Excessively long contracts.
        2) Contracts without performance penalties.
        3) Contracts skewed towards favored firms.
        4) Overly generous contracts.

        Privatization is only one piece. As you state, it’s not a panacea. But it’s simply a lack of competition. It’s usually a lack of thought given to the contracts under which privatized operations are managed.

      2. Semantics is everything.

        When libertarians talk about privatization, they mean government divesting itself of involvement in that realm. If you ask a libertarian about privatizing parking, he will talk about how commercial enterprises compete to sell you parking spaces on their private land.

        When a statist, esp a governmetn employee, talks about privatization, they are NOT talking about divesting govt involvement, not even close. They are in fact doing almost the opposite. They are contracting a private company to administer all or part of the govt-controlled enterprise. This often turns into a massive corrupt giveaway of taxpayer dollars to priviliged insiders. Then, when it turns out to be a boondoggle, the word “privatization” is brought out as if it had anything to do with the arrangement.

        1. So the Reason Foundation isn’t libertarian? Because they were rubbing Daley’s knob pretty good (and are still issuing apologias for that fiasco, quoting Daley apparatchiks’ statements as gospel.

          1. So the city of chicago has no vested interest whatsoever in the parking situation in chicago now? If so then I question who is defining the outcome for citizens of chicago as “bad”.

            1. Daley administration apparatchiks != city of Chicago

              Even though he does have a bit of a Louis XIV complex.

              1. So wait, the City is involved in the parking or not? Can the City tow me or can a parking lot owner tow me and rely on the city to enforce it for him? If so, that is not privatization. Please read my first post. It really seems like your’e not getting it.

                1. Welcome to Tulpa.

                2. Welcome to Tulpa.

          1. I especially like the “Parking Index” study they quote, which compares Chicago to “20 other international cities” stating that the parking situation is better there than Bangalore, New Delhi, Milan, and Nairobi.

  11. Welcome to AMerica, run by the rich, FOR the rich lol.

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