John Turpish for Georgia State House

Are you in the district?



How are you? Fine!


All too often the point of a fine isn’t changing behavior with a side effect of revenue for the government, but rather the revenue IS the point. Consider this experiment that was done in Estonia: instead of charging people for driving too fast they made them wait it a while on the side the road; essentially giving them a “time-out”. Ask yourself: why hasn’t this experiment happened here in Georgia? I think you know the answer. Governments wouldn’t be willing to give up the money.

Everything in measure. There is a place and time for fines as punishment for unacceptable behavior that doesn’t justify prison. However, a government doesn’t manage to collect most of its revenue through fines only by fining dangerous behavior.

It’s a tax

“Taking money against your will backed up by threats of force to fund the government.” Did I just define taxation or fines? Yes. Both. All taxes are harmful, but not all taxes are equally harmful. Let’s talk about some of the worst aspects:

Arbitrary

Unlike most taxes, fines are enforced quite arbitrarily.

First, obviously the justice system is not all-knowing, so some folks will get away with breaking these nonsense laws and not paying the fines.

Secondly, police will not enforce all laws in all situations. If they did we’d all be in prison, since we’re all breaking the law every day. Selective enforcement can be used well, or – even subconsciously – it could be used poorly. This is why when people ask me if I support “mandatory seat-belt laws” I ask them to refer to it as “a tax on cops not liking you”.

Regressive

When talking about taxation that just means it hits poorer people harder. Usually we call a tax regressive if it’s just a higher percentage of their income than it would be for a rich person, like most sin taxes (sugary drinks, tobacco, alcohol, etc.).

In this case it’s actually worse than that. On average poor Georgians are more likely to have a police encounter, and more likely to end up paying fines for minor laws. Yeah – they may end up paying more not just as a fraction of their budget but in raw dollar amounts.

And remember, once the state is involved things can go downhill quickly. What happens if you don’t pay your fine, perhaps because you couldn’t? Jail. And there are cases of folks who lost what job they did have because of being in jail over minor things like this, which isn’t going to help them pay that fine. We really should want less of this kind of thing.

Taxation without representation

One of the main reasons fines are so popular with local governments is because they can apply to people who don’t live there. Raking in the dough without angering the people who get to vote on whether you keep your job? Sign us up!

And that of course just normalizes the practice and incentivizes other municipalities to follow suit.

What to do about it?

Alabama already passed a cap on the amount of revenue a city can pull in from certain fines. I suggest we try something similar, including a wider array of fines This doesn’t actually stop the fines from being charged. But the city doesn’t get to keep the proceeds if they go over the cap, removing the reason why they’d want to.

We should also mandate that community service can substitute for any fine imposed. Let’s try not to lock people in jail for being poor.


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