A loss in government funds coming from traffic tickets and fines has had an interesting effect on towns in St. Louis County: a shutdown of police departments.
Charlack, Missouri, a small town of about 1,300 people, has had to dissolve its police department because it can no longer afford to maintain it without the money it made from the exaggerated amount of fines and tickets. Instead, Charlack will be policed by a neighboring town.
Department of Justice’s Report on Ferguson
Following the death of Black teen Michael Brown at the hands of white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson last summer, racial issues that have long plagued the town as well as St. Louis County as a whole were brought to the public eye. Concerns of racism prompted a Department of Justice investigation into police practices in the town. The report concluded that Ferguson’s police department had been excessively fining minorities and people who did not have the means to pay the fines in order to generate government funds.
According to the report, which was released earlier this year, Ferguson’s revenue generated from municipal fines and fees has been increasing for the past few years. In 2010 the city made $1.38 million, and in 2011 the number did not waver much but increased slightly to $1.41 million. However, in 2012, the city predicted a 30 percent jump in this number and actually exceeded its prediction, garnering $2.11 million from fines and fees. The following year, the city budgeted for that same amount but once again earned more, jumping up to $2.46 million for 2013.
Although a number was not yet available for the revenue generated for 2014 and 2015, the predicted budgets were $2.63 million and $3.09 million for each respective year. The projected amount for 2015 more than doubles the amount generated in 2010.
The report saw this strategy disproportionately impacted Ferguson’s Black citizens:
Ferguson’s strategy of revenue generation through policing has fostered practices in the two central parts of Ferguson’s law enforcement system policing and the courts that are themselves unconstitutional or that contribute to constitutional violations. In both parts of the system, these practices disproportionately harm African Americans. Further, the evidence indicates that this harm to African Americans stems, at least in part, from racial bias, including racial stereotyping. Ultimately, unlawful and harmful practices in policing and in the municipal court system erode police legitimacy and community trust, making policing in Ferguson less fair, less effective at promoting public safety, and less safe.
The findings in Ferguson made similar instances throughout St. Louis County apparent.
Aftermath: New Missouri Laws
On July 9 Gov. Jay Nixon signed a bill, which he described as the “most sweeping” municipal reform bill the state has ever seen, that restricts the practices that departments around the county used to generate revenue. The bill, which went into effect on Aug. 28, states:
These provisions create conditions for the prosecution of minor traffic violations including: limiting the fines imposed when combined with court costs to $300, prohibiting sentencing to confinement for the underlying violation (except for certain classes of violation) or failure to pay a fine (except when a violation of terms of probation), and requiring criminal case court costs to be assessed unless the defendant is indigent or the case is dismissed.
Further, effective Jan. 1, 2016, the bill restricts counties to generating 20 percent of its revenue from general traffic fines, down from 30 percent. And municipalities are limited to just 12.5 percent of this revenue.
Statistics for Towns Prior to the Bill
In 2013, Charlack made more than double the 12.5 percent maximum from traffic tickets and fines, generating 28.88 percent of its general revenue from fines and fees in 2013. The average for St. Louis County towns was close to the cap at 13 percent.
Municipalities were seeing a large profit from these fines a profit they generally do not require to remain open. Of the 81 municipal courts in St. Louis County, only eight did not make a profit from fines. And while these courts cost an average of $223,149 to maintain, they made an average of $711,506 from fines and fees alone.
Charlack Mayor Frank Mattingly was not surprised by what happened in his town. “With Senate Bill 5 passing, we knew it was going to be inevitable, and instead of taking the next six months to figure out, we said, ‘Let’s just do it now and everybody can have a Merry Christmas,'” he said.
Incidentally, Mattingly claimed he did not know how much of the city’s $1 million yearly budget was for the police department.