Political conventions and government structures that have been in place for many years–some since America’s founding–are proving increasingly dysfunctional. I’ve addressed a number of them in this blog: the Electoral College, partisan redistricting, the filibuster and many others are widely recognized to be counterproductive to 21st Century expectations about democratic fairness and effective governance.
We can add a number of other “resistant to change” elements to the list; as one of my sons recently reminded me, thanks to population shifts, the U.S. Senate is wildly unrepresentative. For example, of the candidates who won election to the 114th Senate, the Democrats received 20 million more votes than the Republicans. For another, by 2040, predictions are that nine states will be home to half of the country’s population: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas. The populations of those states will be represented by eighteen Senators. The remaining fifty percent will be represented by eighty-two.
Short of revolution, it is unlikely that we are going to be able to change things like the Senate’s disproportionate representation or the Electoral College–at least, not any time soon. But there are other public policies and longtime practices that are amenable to evidence-based change. One example–recently the subject of analysis by the Brennan Center— is the use of cash bail, fees and fines in the criminal justice system
The past decade has seen a troubling and well-documented increase in fees and fines imposed on defendants by criminal courts. Today, many states and localities rely on these fees and fines to fund their court systems or even basic government operations.
A wealth of evidence has already shown that this system works against the goal of rehabilitation and creates a major barrier to people reentering society after a conviction. They are often unable to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in accumulated court debt. When debt leads to incarceration or license suspension, it becomes even harder to find a job or housing or to pay child support. There’s also little evidence that imposing onerous fees and fines improves public safety.
The study examined ten counties in the states of Texas, Florida, and New Mexico, and also looked at statewide data for those three states. The counties were chosen to ensure a variety of geographic, economic, political, and ethnic profiles, as well as in the way they collected and enforced their use of fees and fines.
Now, this first-of-its-kind analysis shows that in addition to thwarting rehabilitation and failing to improve public safety, criminal-court fees and fines also fail at efficiently raising revenue. The high costs of collection and enforcement are excluded from most assessments, meaning that actual revenues from fees and fines are far lower than what legislators expect. And because fees and fines are typically imposed without regard to a defendant’s ability to pay, jurisdictions have billions of dollars in unpaid court debt on the books that they are unlikely to ever collect. This debt hangs over the heads of defendants and grows every year.
States spend a lot of money chasing after fees that will never be paid, mostly because the people against whom they are levied don’t have the money to pay them. The researchers found that one New Mexico county spent at least $1.17 to collect every dollar of revenue it actually realized, losing money through the process.
Funds currently being expended to collect the uncollectible would be better used for efforts that can be shown to actually improve public safety.
While political scientists are trying to figure out how to rescue American democracy from permanent minority rule, we might start addressing issues like this one, which should be more manageable…