“The Other America”: How Fines and Fees Perpetuate Systemic Racism

By Priya Sarathy Jones, National Policy and Campaigns Director

In 1955, Mamie Till Mobley made the courageous and heartbreaking decision to hold an open casket funeral for her son, Emmett Till. By showing what white men in Mississippi did to her 14-year-old son, she also revealed the United States’ truth to itself. Those who had been able to hide their faces and look away with ease could do so no longer.

George Floyd is our Emmett Till. After seeing what happened to him, hearing his last cries for help, and realizing the blatant disregard for human life shown by each of the officers on the scene, none of us can close our eyes or look away any longer.

These past few months have been the long-overdue reckoning for white America. Though the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery were the tipping point, COVID-19 amplified the everyday injustices that have been plaguing Black and brown communities for decades: inadequate access to healthcare, education, and jobs, combined with scandalously high rates of police contact for innocuous activities and costly entanglement in the criminal justice system.

Increasingly over the past decade, one of the many ways that systemic racism has devastated communities of color is through fines and fees imposed in our justice system. Following the 2008 recession, virtually every U.S. state and locality increased the number and amount of fines and fees imposed on people for everything from minor traffic and municipal code violations, to misdemeanors and felonies — and often used draconian tactics to collect them.

State and local jurisdictions are relying on fines and fees to balance their budgets — effectively turning police into revenue generators and tax collectors. And because of over-policing in low-income communities of color, those budgets are being balanced on the backs of the people who can least afford it. When policymakers rely on mass criminalization to balance their budgets, it corrupts local governments, perverts law enforcement incentives, and undermines police-community relations.

That’s what we learned after another Black man, Michael Brown, was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

In the four years leading up to Brown’s death in 2014, Ferguson police issued over 90,000 citations to the city’s 21,000 residents — for minor infractions like jaywalking, disturbing the peace, and letting the grass grow too long. Each of these citations cost residents hundreds of dollars, and when people couldn’t pay them, they were arrested and jailed.   Every time the city asked the police to increase ticketing revenue, they were asking them to extract more wealth from the community they were supposed to protect and serve. This de-legitimized law enforcement in the eyes of the community, while putting people of color at risk of paying the ultimate price for their contact with the police.

Like Ferguson, Minnesota has its own history of using fines and fees against its residents. Philando Castile was pulled over by police 46 times, almost exclusively for minor violations that had no bearing on public safety, and issued fines totaling over $6,000.  The 47th time Castile was pulled over, a police officer shot him and took his life.

We know that across the country, Black drivers are at least 20% more likely to be stopped by the police. We know that encounters between police officers and Black people result in more deaths and greater use of excessive force. That’s why local and state policymakers can take an important step toward dismantling systemic injustice and police violence by eliminating their reliance on fines and fees.

In 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. described two Americas: one where millions of people have what they need to achieve prosperity, freedom, and human dignity — and another where “the daily ugliness about it transforms the buoyancy of hope into fatigue and despair.” In every U.S. state, and in every municipality large and small, these two Americas still exist side-by-side.

While my Black and brown family may be able to live “freely” next door to a white family in 2020, Black and brown communities are asked to disproportionately bear the injustices of the United States — and are punished disproportionately when they choose to resist those injustices. As we enter the summer of 2020, 65 years after Mamie Till Mobley buried her son, Reverend King’s words ring as true as ever: “Our nation’s summer of riots are caused by our nation’s winter of delays.”  Justice can no longer be delayed.

Priya Sarathy Jones is the National Policy and Campaigns Director at the Fines and Fees Justice Center. She previously served at the Department of Justice for nearly a decade and worked as Senior Counsel for the House Oversight Committee.

This op-ed first appeared in The Hill.