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Police Fines Fund City Budgets, But At A Cost


Many cities balance their budgets in part based on things that people do wrong. Cities use fees and fines from traffic stops, jaywalking, appearances in court. But the benefit for the city can come at a cost to society because fees and fines disproportionately target low-income communities and communities of color. Here is Stacey Vanek Smith and Cardiff Garcia from the NPR daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Celeste Sawyer lives in Florida right near Orlando. Back in 2012, this one small moment started a big chain of events to unfold.


CELESTE SAWYER: My kids had just had a career day at school with a police officer. So when we were stopped at a light on our way home, one of my twins saw a police officer pull up next to us. So she takes off the top portion of her seat belt to roll down her window and scream, hi, Mr. Policeman. And then he pulls in front of me.

CARDIFF GARCIA, BYLINE: The officer said that Celeste's daughter was in violation of the seat belt law, and he issued her a ticket. And then he issued tickets for all of Celeste's children - more than a $1,000. So she went to traffic court to dispute the tickets.


SAWYER: The judge threw it out. They took away every seat belt ticket.

VANEK SMITH: But then she was told she did still owe some money. She owed court fees - $600 worth. And until she paid, her license was suspended.


SAWYER: I was making $10 an hour supporting five children. I don't have 600-odd something dollars.

GARCIA: But Celeste needed to drive to get to work and to get her kids to school. So she took a risk. She drove with a suspended license and ended up in jail. The way she was treated and spoken to while in police custody is something she won't forget.


SAWYER: They find each way to degrade you. You don't know how the process actually works. All you know is whatever they're telling you, you're going to hope and pray that it's right and that you get off and get to go home.

VANEK SMITH: Police departments used to basically get all of their money from taxes. But back in the '80s, there was a wave of tax cuts, and fees and fines emerged as a way to generate extra money for police departments and cities. Dr. Jennifer Doleac is an economist at Texas A&M University. She says fees and fines from traffic stops, jaywalking and court fees have become a central part of many city budgets.

GARCIA: But the reliance on fees and fines has created some problems. First, people of color and low-income Americans are far more likely to be the ones to pay these fees and fines.

VANEK SMITH: In Ferguson, Mo., where Michael Brown was killed by police in 2014, traffic stops made up 20% of the city's budget. And 85% of people pulled over in those traffic stops were African American.


JENNIFER DOLEAC: These types of fees and fines bear most heavily on minority communities because they don't have the political capital to really push back. And so, you know, whatever money they can bring in, there's basically - there's no fight.

VANEK SMITH: The inequality of these fees and fines has also been incredibly destructive for police-community relations says Jennifer Doleac because suddenly, the police aren't simply serving and protecting people - they have to make money off of them.

GARCIA: Celeste Sawyer is a good example of this loss of trust. She says that traffic stop eight years ago and all the trouble that came after has forever changed the way that she sees the police.

VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith.

GARCIA: Cardiff Garcia, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Stacey Vanek Smith
Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.
Cardiff Garcia
Cardiff Garcia is a co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money podcast, along with Stacey Vanek Smith. He joined NPR in November 2017.