When someone cannot afford to pay immediately, draconian collections and enforcement practices trap families in a cycle of punishment that is almost impossible to escape. Turning law enforcement into armed debt collectors further erodes trust between the community and law enforcement.
Surprisingly, of Alabamians surveyed who had criminal justice debt, nearly 50% were jailed because they couldn’t meet their payments. To avoid jail, many survey respondents had to make desperate choices: 83% chose not to pay for basic necessities like rent, utilities or medicine; 44% took out a high-cost payday loan; and 38% turned to crime to get the money they needed to avoid prison – most often by selling drugs, stealing or prostituting themselves.
Ending for-profit policing requires policy change, both in Brookside and in cities large and small across the country. To prevent predatory policing, hold police and courts accountable for their behavior, and mitigate the damage caused by excessive fines and taxes, we must disentangle criminal justice policy from fiscal policy.
States should also require that all fines and fees be paid into a state’s general fund and reallocated to cities based on need, not the amount of ticket revenue they generate. This removes the direct incentive to make unnecessary or questionable shutdowns as a fallback measure to increase revenue, while leaving local governments free to prioritize public safety needs.
At the bare minimum, states must develop standards for police and municipal court operations. These should include the collection and public reporting of traffic stop data to monitor the demographics of those arrested and why, who is convicted of what offenses and how they are punished.
Any municipality that relies on fines and fees to fund basic government services could become the next Brookside. Rooting corruption and venality out of a city doesn’t get to the root of the problem: using fines and fees as a hidden tax. Only a policy change can do that. Lawmakers must commit to curbing perverse incentives that favor predatory policing. Justice demands it.