Pennsylvania cities clog budgets with fines | Condition

(The Center Square) — Local governments rake in billions of dollars annually from fines and charges across the country — and Pennsylvania communities collected more than $202 million in 2020, a new analysis shows.

Some municipalities and counties receive so much that the revenue is an important source of budget balancing.

The Reason Foundation analysis used data from the US Census Bureau to see what fines and charges were levied by the criminal justice system, such as B. Traffic subpoenas and violations of local regulations.

Nationally, local governments have raked in more than $9 billion in fines and charges. Pennsylvania ranked 10th overall in terms of total amount raised, while its per capita collections were $15.56, below the national average of $27.

“The real concept is just that you have these fines that are used in the justice system,” said Vittorio Nastasi, director of criminal justice policy at the Reason Foundation and author of the report. “Fines are not inherently a bad thing. In fact, when used correctly, they can be beneficial as they are an intermediate form of punishment. It is generally less harmful to a person to be fined than imprisoned or placed on probation or probation.”

However, fees are combined with fines to generate revenue for a specific purpose, such as: B. emergency services or “something tangentially related to the particular punishment,” Nastasi said.

“This is a way for governments to increase revenue without increasing taxes because it’s very unpopular to increase taxes and it’s much easier to add to the cost of those criminal or civil penalties,” he said.

This means that many municipalities rely on these fines and fees more than others. Smaller tax bases make fines like speeding tickets a tempting way to fill funding gaps.

Jamestown, in Mercer County near the Ohio border, stands out in the analysis. In 2020, the city collected $105,000 from fines — 64% of the city’s revenue.

No other place relied nearly as heavily on fees, although others generated more revenue.

Cumberland County’s Mount Holly Springs borough, the second-highest in the Commonwealweal, raked in $127,000 in fines, but that money accounted for 12% of the borough’s revenue.

Nearly two dozen Pennsylvania cities, townships, and counties featured in Reason’s analysis. Most fines were levied as follows:

  • Bloomsburg: $731,000 in fines, accounting for nearly 9% of the city’s revenue

  • Doylestown: $350,000 in fines, representing 5% of the district’s revenue

  • New Hope: $348,000 in fines, which accounted for nearly 7% of the district’s revenue

  • Stroudsburg: $330,000 in fines, accounting for nearly 6% of the county’s revenue

“It’s more a product of the unique fiscal circumstances that many small towns find themselves in and the opportunity,” Nastasi said.

But even larger cities have a problem with fines and fees.

“Just concentrating on a percentage of the budget allows larger jurisdictions to get away with this exploitative practice,” Nastasi said. “It’s not just a problem that’s limited to small governments.”

Fixing the problem avoids certain pitfalls, even if tax hikes would be less popular politically.

“Using fines and fees to directly fund courts, law enforcement, or other government activities may create undesirable conflicts of interest,” Nastasi wrote. “In addition to these tax considerations, fines and charges have devastating consequences for low-income individuals, ethnic minorities, and youth and their families.”

The analysis advocates eliminating user fees and funding courts from the state budget, and offering alternatives to paying fines such as community service or drug treatment.

“Eliminating fees as much as possible is really the ideal solution here,” Nastasi said. “As much as we can eliminate fees and withhold fines, fines serve a purpose. However, it is important that fines are used as originally intended, as an alternative to imprisonment.”