St. Louis County has a unique system for sharing sales tax revenue among municipalities. A similar pooled approach to fines from traffic violations would be a step towards reducing the abuse of traffic tickets by St. Louis’ smaller municipalities.
St. Louis County contains ninety separate municipalities, many with just a few hundred residents. While this helps give St. Louis its quirky charm, the smaller communities have seen their tax base shrink even while inflation increases their costs. Many have turned to traffic fines to make up for the lost revenue. In my town of Ferguson, Missouri, fines and court fees are 21% of the budget, over $2.6 million annually.
Traffic laws are meant to enforce public safety, a way of insuring careless drivers or dangerous vehicles don’t put other drivers at risk. We give our police officers broad discretion to decide when someone’s actions behind the wheel become dangerous. An officer’s discretion cannot help but be affected if the officer is also trying to reach a revenue goal. Converting the police from an instrument of public safety to a profit center changes the dynamics of how the police go about their jobs, and how they interact with the public.
The working poor bear the brunt of this change. They are more likely to live in or around one of the smaller municipalities and less likely to be able to afford to a pay a ticket when it is due. Once they miss paying the ticket they are on a treadmill very much like a payday loan – the fines and court costs greatly increase the amount due, making it even harder for them to pay, until they eventually wind up in jail.
For African Americans, the burden can be even worse. With a discretionary ticket, it is the officer’s word against the driver. A person driving a new car is far more likely to vote and donate to politicians, and far more likely to give their elected officials an earful if they think an officer unfairly wrote them a traffic ticket. A poor African American is less likely to vote, donate to politicians or to be able to convince a judge to believe his or her word over that of the police officer. And as the tragedy in Ferguson showed, there is a hidden, corrosive effect on the police’s relationship with our poor African American citizens. They come to feel that the police view them more as cash cows than citizens. We need to get African Americans to buy into and participate in our economic system. But if their primary interactions with the system are getting frivolous tickets and paying excessive fines it becomes much harder for African Americans to believe society actually wants their participation. It was this frustration, this sense of being targeted and excluded, that was the source of much of the rage displayed here in Ferguson.
This, ultimately, is why we need to change our system of traffic ticketing. We as a nation believe in equality of opportunity, in giving each citizen the chance to participate in our system, in our economy. But using traffic tickets as a revenue source makes it harder for poor people to participate. We are undermining our efforts to increase opportunity by improving childhood nutrition, education, and job training. We are making it harder, sometimes much harder, for poor people to chase the American dream.
The police of course, can’t just stop enforcing traffic laws. But we need to take it back to a public safety initiative, not a revenue initiative. We need to break the direct connection between the number of tickets written and a municipality’s revenue. Already St. Louis County has a pooled approach to sales tax, to allow the smaller communities to receive some of the revenue generated by shopping malls elsewhere in the County. This same pooled approach could be used for traffic ticket revenue. All revenue from moving violations and court fees could go into a general fund, to be distributed proportionately based on population to all of the townships.
Decoupling traffic ticket revenue from municipal budgets will be hard on some of the smaller municipalities, including Ferguson. But it is a step we need to take – the costs of using the police as a revenue generator are too great on our society. We need to be extending opportunity to all of our citizens, not rigging the system against our poorest.