Stripping the Gears of White Supremacy: A Call to Abate Reliance on Court Fines and Fees and Revitalize Local Taxation


The antitax movement has persuaded almost 1,300 state lawmakers to sign a pledge never to raise taxes while in office.

The imposition of court debt began in the 1960s and became more prominent in the 1980s through fines, fees, costs, assessments, asset forfeiture, and restitution. States and municipalities have come to rely on court fines and fees to generate revenue and prevent budget shortfalls. This article argues that the reliance on court debt results from antitax sentiment under the banner of “Americans for Tax Reform” (ATR), and the erosion of state and local tax base reflects and exacerbates racial inequality.  Tax policy demonstrates racialized concepts of the taxpayer where whites are the taxpayer and non-whites are not and are seen as the recipients of welfare and public services. In addition, legal limits placed on how state and local governments can generate revenue has led to budgetary gimmicks and the rise of fines and fees to generate revenue. The author concludes that court debt is an inferior source of funding because it is inefficiently collected, lacks traditional political checks, and is inequitable.

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Key Findings:

  • After the passage of California’s Proposition 13 in 1978 to limit property taxes from being raised, 38 states reduced or stabilized their tax bases through similar laws.
  • After the 2008 financial crisis, 47 states and several cities raised civil and criminal fines and fees.
  • The Brennan Center for Justice found that for every $1 collected by jurisdictions from fines and fees, they spent $0.41 to collect it.
  • Court fines and fees create conditions for economic expropriation; race corresponds with the rate of imposition of fines, not arrest rates or public safety.


  • States and municipalities should replace systems of court debt with traditional revenue sources such as broader sales taxes, wealth taxes and by reforming federal income tax.
  • Racial equity should be considered by states and municipalities when formulating their tax systems.
  • Eliminate supermajority requirements to raise revenue.
  • Court debt organizations and movements should continue to organize at all levels of government to curb court debt reform.
  • Revise legal and public education about court debt, economic systems, and emphasize social welfare programs’ efficacy to raise awareness and aid organizing efforts.
Hayley Hahn
Journal of Law and Political Economy