Local Government

Is Your Hometown Balancing Its Budget by Fining Everybody It Can? Here's How To Find Out.

Governing puts together a database of cities and towns addicted to money from fines and forfeitures.


Everybody knows about those infamous speed traps where small-town law enforcement officers lurk in their vehicles, ready to pounce on anyone going even slightly over the legal limit and to fine the unlucky driver hundreds of dollars.

Many folks understand that the police often do this not to protect public safety but to empty people's wallets, but it's not easy to see how extensive these practices are and how dependent cities and towns have become on this money. So Data Editor Mike Maciag at Governing (a magazine sadly soon to be defunct) embarked on an extensive national analysis to determine which communities' budgets are overly dependent on fines.

He found that in nearly 600 jurisdictions across the country, fines are used to fund more than 10 percent of the general fund. In 284 of those cities and towns, revenues from fines account for more than 20 percent of the budget.

As the stereotype suggests, many of these places are rural towns in southern states such as Georgia, Texas, and Louisiana. But others are scattered across the country, and there are fairly high concentrations in New York, Ohio, and Illinois as well.

Some cities' tendency to try to fine their way to solvency got a lot of attention after Michael Brown's fatal shooting by police in Ferguson, Missouri. The anger there was driven not just by Brown's shooting, but also by an environment where the police were keeping their paychecks coming by constantly finding reasons to levy fines on its primarily low-income African-American residents—and then jailing people when they couldn't pay, which just further compounded the citizens' problems.

Ferguson wasn't the only town in St. Louis County with such issues. The Institute for Justice sued nearby Pagedale for a regime of petty citations so extensive that the local government had fined more than a third of its own citizens. The town literally handed out more code enforcement citations in a year than it had households. The town agreed in 2015 to reform its ways, but it still shows up on Governing's list. Still, things have improved there. Back when the Institute for Justice sued, it was getting a quarter of its revenue from fines. Now it's getting 11.2 percent.

The towns most dependent on fines are in Louisiana, the state with the second-highest incarceration rate in the United States. Places like Fenton and Georgetown—tiny villages with populations measured in the hundreds—get more than 90 percent of their revenue from fines. This happens because these towns are often poor and don't have an actual tax base to serve as a foundation for revenue. And so the police resort to speed traps and fines. In some locations, the goal is to hit travelers from outside of the community, but in other towns and cities, the citizens themselves are subjected to harsh punishments for small offenses.

But it's not all small towns. The largest city to appear on the list is Chicago, where fines and forfeitures account for 11 percent of the city's general fund—nearly $340 million. That shouldn't surprise anybody who has read Reason's coverage of Chicago's operations, particularly C.J. Ciaramella's reporting on the city's vehicle impound racket, which was followed by yet another lawsuit by the Institute for Justice.

While many local leaders insist that they're merely protecting public safety by preventing speeding and drunk driving, some of these towns actually include projected revenue from fines and forfeitures into future budgets, creating obvious incentives for police to levy fines and for courts to show no mercy. In Oklahoma, for example, the money from fines gets routed directly back into police and public safety funds. That's quite an incentive. And as Governing notes, there are consequences:

Some of the most problematic practices are found in small municipal courts with little state oversight. New York is home to approximately 1,300 town and village courts that, unlike the larger state-run city courts, keep most of their revenues from fines and fees. That means those judges have an incentive to show that their courts earn back the money spent on them, given that they're funded almost entirely by the locality, says Amelia Starr, chair of the Fund for Modern Courts, which promotes access to justice in New York state courts. "Almost any state that has courts that generate money for their locality in small towns is vulnerable to exactly these kinds of pressures," Starr says.

This arrangement carries serious ramifications for those facing charges. A Fund for Modern Courts survey of defense attorneys and public defenders reported that courts in 43 New York counties, or most of the state, "rarely" or "never" took a defendant's ability to pay into account before issuing a bench warrant.

Criminal justice reformers are now pushing reforms to reduce the use of fines and forfeitures as a revenue-generating tool. For more about the extent of the problem and how some towns are trying to make changes, read Governing's report here.

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  1. People for some reason simply accept policing for profit as though it was actual law and order.

    1. I am making 10,000 Dollar at home own laptop .Just do work online 4 to 6 hour proparly . so i make my family happy and u can do

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  2. Come on, man! You can’t expect our masters to cut spending! We’d all die horrible deaths if they did that!

  3. This is the kind of shit that I’d like to confront bootlickers with. Most police aren’t heroes, they’re just fucking tax collectors with a different name.

    1. That is the problem. Get your house broken into and some flat foot shows up and writes a report for your insurance company and tells you tough luck. Drive more than ten miles over the speed limit and said flat foot suddenly becomes the hardest working man in government.

      1. +1000

        Traffic tickets are by and large huge revenue makers. Going 10 mph over the speed limit is not necessarily more dangerous as many speed limits are based on arbitrary reasoning.

        The state speed limits are an example of that. Decades ago, 55 mph was “imposed” for safety and gas mileage. Now many of these states have 65-70-75-80 mph speed limits where the 55 mph speed limits used to be and new cars can get better gas mileage than 20+ year old cars.

        In Georgia, the corruption with local police using traffic tickets as money makers led to state law that
        § 40-14-8. When case may be made and conviction had
        (a) No county, city, or campus officer shall be allowed to make a case based on the use of any speed detection device, unless the speed of the vehicle exceeds the posted speed limit by more than ten miles per hour and no conviction shall be had thereon unless such speed is more than ten miles per hour above the posted speed limit. […]

        In other words, local Georgia cops cannot write tickets for speeding unless the drivers speed is 11+ mph above the speed limit. This does not always apply to Georgia State Troopers but they have other restrictions on radar for curves, distances from speed limits signs and grades of hills.

        1. Be careful in Virginia where as little as 5 over can get you a reckless driving charge (80 in a 75).

      2. Get your house broken into and some flat foot shows up and writes a report for your insurance company and tells you tough luck. Drive more than ten miles over the speed limit and said flat foot suddenly becomes the hardest working man in government.

        This is one of the reasons that normal, conservative leaning people like myself, are beginning to really dislike law enforcement in this day and age. Somehow cities can’t solve burglaries or car thefts, but they always manage to find the money to run unmarked or ghost cars on the highways for traffic enforcement.

        1. Well, and the culture in American law enforcement that anything other than immediate compliance is a nail needing to be hit with a 147 grain hammer.

    2. No… generally the bootlickers still support this shit. They recognize that it’s paying for their heroes. They don’t care if you got a ticket; you shouldn’t have been breaking the law. They’re not worried because they know that they’re fine, upstanding people who could never possibly end up on the wrong side of this.

    3. I tell my kids all the time when we see cops with someone pulled over….:”hey look the tax collector is out and about!”

  4. IN other news the New York Times wishes everyone “A Crappy Jew Year”.


    Tom Wright-Piersanti and Sarah Jong, the new face of American racism.

    Why does he have a hyphenated name? What did he take his wife’s name or something. And of course he looks exactly like the smug douche bag you would expect him to look like.

    1. I thought using a bunch of dumb jokes made on Twitter to “prove” that someone is beyond the pale was a bad thing.
      I guess it’s holding them to their own standards, but I’m not a big fan of that game whoever is playing it.

      1. I am actually fine with this standard. I don’t think telling the world how anti-semetic you are and you are going to have a “crappy Jew Year” because you might work on that being beyond the pale is a bad thing.

        If the rule is don’t say horrible racist shit unless you want to be considered a racist, I am okay with that rule.

        1. I might be OK with it if what counts as racist in many people’s minds wasn’t so ridiculous.
          Maybe the guy is racist. He certainly seems to have a thing about Indians and Jews (though I thought the Jew Police one was pretty funny). And the Times can certainly fire him if they don’t want to be associated with that stuff.

        2. As long as well all agree to a single definition of what racist is. Right now it means this:
          1. a person who shows or feels discrimination or prejudice against people of other races, or who believes that a particular race is superior to another.

          but is misused to deplatform people you dont like.

    2. Why does he have a hyphenated name? What did he take his wife’s name or something.

      Certain Hispanic cultures do that- you take your father’s and mother’s name, then the next generation keeps the father’s name and drops the mother’s name.

      But I’m not seeing anything particularly spicy about his name, so it might just be some kind of pretense. Like Tony Villaraigosa.

      1. I know the Hispanic tradition but this guy does not appear to be Hispanic and neither of his names are.

    3. I love some schadenfreude as much as the next guy, but I also feel like I need to be somewhat consistent — I think its fun to poke fun at the dude for shit that he said 10 years ago, simply because he supports doing the very same thing to people he is at odds with politically. But, I don’t believe in trying to get him fired though, that some leftist puritan bullshit.

      Just remember that he’s said some edgy race jokes in the past, and remember that context when reading the New York Times.

      If anyone could look up a complete list of what I used to say in public when I was right out college, just cause I thought it would offend people, impress my friends and make me feel edgy… well, lets just say I’m happy twitter wasn’t really a thing yet.

    4. Horticulture sounds like Whore-tit-culture, those sick fuck farmers are probably whacking off onto their crops right now

      Twitter is seriously the greatest service in journalism since journalism. Previously, you had to read and interpret the journalist’s work to suss out what he or she was really thinking. Now you can skip all that and go right to their twitter page.

      1. Deputy Washington editor Jonathan Weisman of The New York Times was demoted Tuesday following a series of controversial tweets.

        Seriously, journalists of all genders repeatedly step on their own dicks on twitter. I love twitter. And the more other people use it, the more I love it.

  5. Between enforcing vice laws with extreme violence and this stuff – people *still* look at me like I’m crazy when I say there’s no such thing as a good cop.

    1. Be happy you just got a ticket out of an interaction with the cops. Many others are not so lucky.

  6. Notice that California is blank. As I seem to recall, sometime back in the 60s they passed a lot forbidding revenue generation via traffic tickets.

    I always assumed that to be true. Then one day I drove into Arizona and problem got a ticket for doing 56 in a 55 zone. As the natives explained to me, I got a ticket because I was driving with California plates. I could have fought it, but noticed that the issuing officer had the same surname as the judge in a tiny town of population 100. No point fighting it, just pay the fine.

    1. Unless you can cite such a law, Taxifornia collects millions in traffic fines.

      1. I’m sure they collect the fines whether or not he can cite such a law.
        From a quick search, it looks like the law is against speed traps and requires that speed limits be clearly posted and not unreasonably low.

        1. He cannot cite such a law because its not true.

          Commifornia is as corrupt as most states (and their local entities) when it comes to traffic fines being used for general revenue.

          1. Well there is actually a law against speed traps. Which I suspect is what he was talking about. The subject here is local jurisdictions, not states, using fines as a major revenue source.

            1. Further, it had to measure up to a specific percentage of its budget. Even if a jurisdiction DOES use petty fines to pad their budgets– which I think everyone agrees every jurisdiction on the planet does– the question is, is it a significant portion of the overall budget?

              1. I don’t remember which state it was, but they passed an anti speed trap law. Basically any fines collected above an amount based upon the size of the local population would be put into a state fund that at the end of the year would be distributed proportionally among all the police dept. within the state. Thus if a community truly had an issue with speeding they can still write the tickets to punish the offenders but that community would not be able to operate a speed trap to generate revenue, as the funds would just go to all police departments not to the local community. Every State should pass such laws.

    2. No, they just hide what they do a little better than garden spots like Estelline, Texas. Where I was tailgated by one of their officers in the right lane of 287 from the moment I entered their shithole town until the moment I crossed over the town limit and the speed limit rose. Seriously, the guy would have rear ended me if I had to stop. Not being my first time in small town Texas, I was looking for the speed limit signs, and set the cruise control to 4 MPH under when I crossed into their town.

      Fuck that place. Not a fan of the Red River Valley, or the seemingly perpetually pissed off denizens therein.

      The article missed a few other infamous Texas speed traps, like LaGrange, Bellaire, and Nassau City, where I managed to get pulled over for doing 25 in a 25 residential zone. I.e., non School Zone. “How fast were you going?” “The speed limit. 25.” “O.K., have a nice day.”


      1. But the point of my post before I got off on a Texas rant wasn’t to bitch at Texas, it was to point out that CA obfuscated their revenue collection with things like claiming, “Ticket quotas are illegal! We just have citation performance goals, which aren’t quotas at all.” (Said to me by a CHP acquaintance with a straight face.)

        CA has relied on tickets for funding for a very long time. We can trade speed trap and city ordinance enforcement stories.

  7. PA municipalities have more options for revenue than fines, which surprised me that there was a dot in my area.

    Turns out that’s Mt. Holly, a very small town noted for former Braves playoffs hero Sid Bream and having a notorious stretch of 25mph road that should be 45mph that the only cop the borough hangs out at and pulls people over.

    One of the few actual speed traps in the state, since local cops cannot use radar here. (We’re the only state like that)

  8. I am amazed that not one town in California is on that map.

    1. They dont report like much of the rest of the country does.

      Don’t be fooled, Taxifornia collects millions in fines from traffic.

      1. California does. That doesn’t mean local jurisdictions do. Which is what this article is about.

        1. Which likely means that this “study” was full of shit with regard to some states (ahem, Commifornia).
          In 2006, the California Research Bureau calculated that traffic violations generated $502.6 million in revenue, and that was before the Great Recession.

          Caroline Chen at the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) broke down a fine received by one Derick Neal, who was dinged for a rolling stop in San Leandra during a right turn at a traffic light, and counted 11 separate charges in addition to the base fine of $100. That brought the bottom line to $549.

          Neal’s experience was typical. Drivers in the state were issued more than 6 million citations last year, often in the $400-$500 range. That pencils out to $2.4 billion at the low end.

          The charges on Neal’s ticket, in addition to the base fine, included: a state penalty assessment ($100), a county penalty assessment ($70), traffic school ($59), DNA identification fund ($50), court construction ($50), court operations ($40), conviction assessment ($35), state surcharge ($20), emergency medical services ($20), emergency medical air transportation ($4) and night court ($1).

          County is local.

          1. Do they do the, AIUI, Virginia thing, where even if you are found not guilty, there’s enough court costs and other bullshit fees tacked onto the ticket that you lose anyway?

          2. Great. But I don’t think that anyone was claiming that local jurisdictions don’t make any money off of traffic fines.

    2. The map in the article image is filtered for just towns where the fines are more than 10% of the budget. California municipalities and counties don’t show up because their budgets are so huge that even the outrageous number of fines doesn’t even hit the 10% threshold.

      If you look at the map that lists either jurisdictions where it’s more than 10% of the budget – OR – the fines total more than $100 per capita compared to the number of residents, you’ll see a lot more dots in California.

      Interactive map – Click on the dots for stats

      1. For instance, Santa Monica, CA doesn’t show up on the map shown in the article, but Center Township, Indiana (Indianapolis) does.

        Both have a similar number of people – 80k in Santa Monica and 120k in Center Township. But Center Township has annual revenues in the $3 million range, whereas Santa Monica’s annual revenues are in the $400 million range.

        That makes the $16 million in fines collected in Santa Monica look like only 4% of the budget, even though it’s over $200 per resident. Meanwhile, Center Township only collects $372k in fines, with about 50% more population, and it averages out to just $3 per resident.

        But their revenue is so small in comparison, it looks like 12% of their budget.

  9. HA! I fucking knew it! Des Moines, Washington. I KNEW it!!11!!

  10. Well it seems there is one thing for certain. There is no market based solution for this problem. In fact it is a market problem. Crimes do occur and people have to pay for them. If so how does one pay for the policing and legal process? Fines. Bail. Bonds. So this well deserved critique of speed traps etc, should lead to a long look at how society pays for the whole industrial incarceration complex. The market based approach is working against good government and criminal justice for sure and in this instance privatization and the profit motive is a key driver of the problem. And no government or laws would be an even bigger problem.

    1. The market based approach is working against good government and criminal justice for sure and in this instance privatization and the profit motive is a key driver of the problem.

      Huge logical leap there. I’m not saying you’re wrong, but you failed to actually demonstrate the link between what you were saying at the start of your post and the statement I quoted above.

      In the context of the article, you seem like you are trying to infer that these local governments are trying to become private entities with a profit motive, and that’s driving the injustice via fines, bonds, bail (did you mean bail bonds?). I know that’s probably not what you’re trying to say (because that would be insane), but since you didn’t really explain how you got to what essentially boils down to the real problem is privatization and profit, you just end up looking like someone that has something to say but cant figure out how to put it together for the reader.

  11. Fines are a great way to ensure the wealth of the ruling elites.
    No one ever asks where the money goes, to whom it goes to and why the fines are so high.
    Its a great government scam.
    I’m surprised more state and local governments don’t get in on it.
    Oh, wait.
    I shouldn’t give them ideas.

  12. Interesting though hardly new. In fact if you read how many towns paid their Marshals/constables etc in the 19th century, fines were part of their pay. Dodge was one, the Earps often took in huge amounts of money when the herds were in and then often left town when the herds left town, because their pay was to low. They’d ride back in just before the herds showed up again.
    One if the dots is Sidney, MT. I have to wonder how much of that is related to the oil fields and the recent boom? My town on the other hand, 35 miles north, we often can’t even get the sheriff’s office to come over and enforce any of the city ordinances or even get a deputy to patrol the east side of the county.

    1. Though DOT loves to pull people over for bypassing the weigh scale.

  13. In Pagedale you can be fined for walking on the wrong side of the sidewalk. I didn’t realize there was a wrong side of the sidewalk until I read of that finable offense. The courthouse hours are set to minimize the likelihood of employed persons being able to attend court dates – thus increasing fines.
    St. Louis County needs justice-system reform in general. Many microurbs with their own police and judicial systems, which require kleptocracy to fund. Civic pride can lead to bad outcomes.
    Must give a shoutout to Minnie Rhymes, a Pagedale Alderwoman, who was aware of specific issues troubling her constituents and wanted to address them when I met her in 2016. However, individual efforts seem to be wasted in Pagedale.
    Must also give a shoutout to Kimberly Norwood, Washington University law professor, for her efforts to address the issues in Ferguson in her role on the Ferguson panel.

  14. Make the fines go into the state general fund instead of going directly to the jurisdiction or law enforcement.

  15. Checking a few of the cities listed that I’m familiar with, I see cities that are all a.) small and b.) have major thoroughfares or highways that run through them. It hardly seems sufficient that they are “addicted to money from fines”. My extremely spicy take: it’s not that hard to avoid traffic violations.

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