In the criminal justice system, don’t sacrifice public safety for profit


While the nation the prison population has decreased since peaking in 2009incarceration rates remain extraordinarily high.

Continued efforts to reduce incarceration rates will be stalled unless we address the role revenue plays in the day-to-day running of police departments, courts, jails, and jails across the country. So much of the time and effort of these entities is devoted to revenue generation that the goals of pursuing justice and improving public safety are often sidelined.

A new Brennan Center for Justice Report looks at the interrelated economic incentives that underpin our justice system. Many of these practices are based on a simple math: more people in the justice system means more dollars for agencies, governments, and for-profit contractors.

Some of the revenue streams come directly out of the pockets of people who are ticketed, searched, arrested, imprisoned, tried and sent to jail or jail, while others come from a growing trade in beds in correctional and detention facilities .

Michael Brown brought attention to Ferguson, Missouri

A 2020 study found that when a municipality increased the percentage of its revenue from law enforcement fines, fees, and confiscationsthis increase was associated with statistically significant decreases in clearance rates (the ratio of arrests to reported crimes) for violent crimes and property crimes.

This is an unacceptable compromise. It is time for government agencies involved in the criminal justice system at all levels to examine the revenue-generating parts of their work and its true costs, as well as the budget holes they are meant to fill.

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In front of reduction in cash assistance from the state or federal government, eroded the property and sales tax bases, and public distaste for tax increases, the pressure to generate revenue has been intense, to put it mildly. Even so, every agenda, every policy that now prioritizes revenue over security and justice can be realigned. The solutions to these problems exist. They just need brave people to apply them.

The murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri brought national attention to user-funded justice – the city had pushed the police department and the courts to maximize the potential for funding fines and costs.

In fiscal 2010 and 2011, approximately 12% of Ferguson’s general fund revenue come from fines and fees. In fiscal year 2015, the city expected 23% of its revenue to come from fines and fees.

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Civilian property confiscation, too, has metastasized into a major source of revenue, going far beyond its sole purpose of targeting drug kingpins. Law enforcement seizes and retains people’s money, Vehicles, houses and other elements in case of suspicion of their link with an offense without having to prove the link.

Take Minnesota’s Metro Gang Strike Force. An investigation revealed that its members stopped and searched people who were obviously not involved in gang activitiesthen take or purchase seized items for personal use – such as televisions, tools, appliances and jet skis.

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Law enforcement agencies also derive revenue from bed space. Some counties offer open beds in local jails to state or federal authorities whose own facilities are overcrowded, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement and US Marshals. Counties can arrange for the federal government to pay them to maintain a “minimum guaranteed” number of beds in their establishments. Some are expanding their facilities or building new ones to serve this market. Or they may act as middlemen between federal agencies and for-profit companies, agreeing to house federal inmates, then subcontracting with a company that places those people in their facilities.

Rebalancing the scales of justice

While it is easy to agree that governments should not extract money from the most vulnerable, or that agencies should be rewarded for imposing penalties that are too harsh, the main challenge of reform is that these financial incentives – and their budgetary effects – have become persistent and self-inflicted. -reinforcement. Nevertheless, we can, and we must, shift the scales of justice.

Ram Subramanian
Lauren Brooke Eisen

For example, policy makers can combat the growth of the bed space market and take steps to reduce correctional and safe custody populations. At the same time, where housing deficits still exist, negotiations and contracts should be subject to increased transparency and accountability.

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Legislators may also choose to eliminate civil forfeiture of assets. Alternatively, states can redirect the proceeds of confiscation away from law enforcement.

Legislatures can eliminate all fees, with unpaid debts automatically cancelled.

To realign our priorities, Congress, state legislatures, local governments, and law enforcement agencies must work together to diminish the attractiveness of existing financial incentives for agencies and municipalities that are often overstretched. The justice system should be funded fairly by the taxpayers, who are all served by it – not primarily by the poorest and most marginalized members of the community.

Ram Subramanian is the general director from the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. Lauren-Brooke Eisen is the director of the program and a former assistant district attorney.

This column is part of a USA TODAY Opinion series on police accountability and building safer communities. The project started in 2021 by examining qualified immunity and continues in 2022 by looking at various ways to improve enforcement. The project is made possible in part by a grant from Stand togetherwhich does not provide any editorial input.


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