Utah's municipal budgets still have many of its fee structures in place. Some lawmakers have tried to combat this problem.

Is revenue from fines and fees the future of municipal budgets in Utah?

Utah's municipal budgets still have many of its fee structures in place. Some lawmakers have tried to combat this problem.

In 2020, the National Center for Access to Justice (NCAJ) went through, state by state, a deep survey of laws and regulations to provide a full picture of how fines and fees impact people in the United States.

Last year, they updated these statistics to check what changes had been made. The Beehive State ranked sixth across the nation for the least punitive laws regarding the collection of fines and fees.

Despite ranking sixth in the nation, Utah only received 44 out of 100 possible points on the organization’s survey.

“In short, no state did well,” the NCAJ researchers wrote of their findings. “Only two states received more than 50 out of a possible 100 points, and no state received a passing score.”

One area in which Utah got no points from the organization was in its structure of fees.

“Recognizing that fees serve no role in making communities safer and that they unfairly force people who come into contact with the courts to pay for a system that serves all of society, the Justice Index sets a goal of abolishing all court fees,” the NCAJ researchers wrote. “No state has yet abolished all court fees, but one in three has moved to abolish some of the most pernicious fees.”

In the past 10 years, there’s been a dramatic shift around public sector officials and their relationship with the communities they are meant to serve. Academics, historians, and activists have made deeply researched cases to show examples of deliberate looting targeting marginalized communities across the country. In this framing, even though many other American cities may not have been structured to do this intentionally, they grew out of a period of backlash from wealthy citizens that, in turn, put increased pressure on poorer people.

As the distillation of any community or individual power, money has always been a key part of the relationship between US citizens and local, state, and federal governments. Nearly a decade ago, events in Ferguson, Missouri, showed how ongoing revenue generation programs targeting poor communities would destroy a city government’s credibility and lead to a backlash.

Now, groups across the US are trying to change the status quo in American governance.

Even removed from a historical, political, or social context, the numbers alone indicate a trend across the country. The outstanding municipal bonds market reached $4 trillion in 2022, according to broker-dealer and investment banker association SIFMA. In 2012, that number was $3.7 trillion, according to the SEC, a statistic that exploded from $361 billion in 1981.

Outstanding local debt, meanwhile, has hovered very close to those numbers for decades, according to USA Facts, an organization that compiles government statistics. In 1980, $324.89 billion was uncollected from fines and fees—and that number has been fluctuating above $3 trillion since 2009. Even adjusting for inflation, the outstanding debt is three times what it was in the 1980s.

In order to understand potential future governance structures, it’s important to understand how we got to where we are now and why the current model is being questioned.

In the 1970s, Utah—like much of the country—was creating a uniform method for towns and cities to create and maintain their budgets. This would cover everything from how a town could manage state finances to how they lay out a budget and what their emergency expenditures should look like. Meanwhile, city courts across the country were beginning to put in place fines and fees that would help them cover their expenses.

At the same time, the country was going through what became known as a “tax revolt,” in which nearly all of the country scaled back its property taxes.

This process began with Proposition 13 in California, where homeowners approved the measure to dramatically slash property tax by 2 to 1. This echoed across the country, with nearly every state adopting a similar measure, and the “tax revolt” is even believed to have contributed to Ronald Reagan’s later presidential wins. But that money needed to be generated elsewhere, and fines and fees shot up. While taxes would target proportional wealth, fines and fees could target anyone who interacted with city services, courts, or police, regardless of their ability to pay.

A 2020 study by Arizona State University professor Sian Mughan found that municipal courts had particularly predatory practices in areas with lower property taxes. The poorer a community was, the more cities raised money off fines.

“Cities with municipal courts raise more fine and fee revenue than cities without a court,” Mughan wrote. “In cities with a court, reliance on these revenues decreases as per capita property tax yields increase; and these effects are more pronounced in cities in the bottom quartile of the population distribution.”

Not only do they charge residents regardless of their ability to pay, but “excessive reliance on fine and fee revenues is problematic from a budgetary perspective as court fines and fees seldomly bring in as much revenue as is forecasted,” Mughan wrote.

This was an area of focus for Utah legislators last year. State senator Lincoln Fillmore introduced a bill requiring the state to audit its fine collection practices and limit the amount courts could raise from traffic fines. It was signed into law by the governor in March.

Jackie Wang, a Harvard University Ph.D. specializing in race and the political economy of prisons and police, refers to this process as the “financialization of municipalities” in her 2018 book, “Carceral Capitalism.”

She wrote about how the deeply entrenched culture of fine-collecting deeply impacted residents of Ferguson in the years leading up to 2014.

“The excessive use of fines and fees to generate revenue had an overwhelmingly negative impact on the quality of life of the city’s black residents—creating an atmosphere of fear, disrupting the lives of residents, ensnaring people in a cycle of financial and legal misery, and limiting people’s mobility,” she wrote of that period.

This was an area of focus for Utah legislators last year. State senator Lincoln Fillmore introduced a bill requiring the state to audit its fine collection practices and limit the amount courts could raise from traffic fines. It was signed into law by the governor in March.

“New research has also revealed that these practices are not limited to the St. Louis area, but are common in majority-black communities around the United States,” she wrote.

In 2014, after 18-year-old Black Ferguson resident Michael Brown was killed by a white police officer and the country erupted in protests against police brutality and systemic racism, the Obama administration investigated the police department’s practices. The Department of Justice found that the city had been using fines and fees to dramatically raise revenue, planning for increases to their scheduled fees each year, despite the fact that the city had seen a massive increase in concentrated poverty for more than a decade—making it hard for residents to keep up with these fines.

In the years afterward, several lawsuits from legal organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International targeted municipalities that had gone as far as jailing residents who could not pay, a practice ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1983.

Nearly a decade later, lawyers and activists across the country are looking to combat the financial structure used by cities like Ferguson by eliminating fines and fees altogether. One organization, the Fines and Fees Justice Center (FFJC), targets this problem head-on by conducting studies of American city budgets, organizing with lawmakers and activists to run campaigns to end predatory fines and publishing a library of information related to the topic.

“These fees include penalties, surcharges, assessments, and other costs that bear no relation to punishment for an offense or to public safety,” wrote lawyers with the Fines and Fees Justice Center.

Although criminal justice discourse is often centered in extreme, headline-grabbing examples like true crime and violence, a massive portion of the justice system are routine, small-scale events like violating minor traffic laws, jay-walking, or low-stakes crimes like selling loose cigarettes all lead to fines and fees.

FFJC has published research finding that race affects the likelihood of whether someone will be stopped for speeding. They’ve also found that the revocation of driver’s licenses can be used to generate revenue for courts at the cost of a resident’s mobility, access to work, and economic stability.

These kinds of findings have led the organization to create a new campaign: to end justice fees altogether. Their campaign tracks 23 states that have scaled back their fine structures as a result of changing perceptions on the topic.

“In recent decades, state and local governments have increasingly turned to police, prosecutors and judges to generate revenue,” they wrote in a summary of the campaign. “This regressive system of taxation is now entrenched in jurisdictions across the United States and can be especially tempting to governments facing the threat of recession.”

The policy argument looks to eliminate fees for criminal cases in the courts but also for those who are incarcerated and want to use the commissary or make a phone call.

Utah, though, like much of the country, still has many of its fee structures still in place. However, on top of 2022’s fine-limiting bill, lawmakers have tried to combat this problem. In 2021, Rep. Cory Maloy and Sen. Michael Kennedy introduced a bill that would end the revocation of driver’s licenses on the basis of nonpayment or failure to appear in court. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, 30,000 Utahns had their licenses revoked each year at the time. That bill was signed by the governor before the end of 2021.

Both of these efforts in Utah have centered around traffic violations, as those are a major course of revenue for municipalities and courts across the country. But the issue also extends to other areas. A Florida investigation by the Times-Union newspaper in 2017 found that residents could be ticketed routinely for something as simple as jaywalking, leading to constant debt and interaction with the courts.

Activists across the US have been trying to undo these paradigms for decades, and those efforts are starting to gain steam. As the country watched a wave of protests following the killing of George Floyd in 2020, a rallying cry to defund and abolish police reached mainstream audiences. Less than a year later, Mariame Kaba, an abolitionist scholar who has been at the forefront of activism in the US for decades, wrote a book attempting to make the case for dismantling carceral systems as they currently exist.

While explaining her position on racial profiling and police abolition to The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill in 2021, she argued that deeper than just a policy position, the work was rooted in protecting her community, suggesting that fines and fees are interconnected to headline-grabbing cases of brutality.

“My politics is centered at the source of people suffering,” Kaba said. “I want a politics that grows from there, you know? A bottom-up politic that does that and that actually tries to address the material needs that people have. It’s why I’m a proponent of mutual aid work as part of our organizing; always have been, always engaged in that myself. You know, because we have to actually help people survive if we’re going to then get to the point where we can be fighting together for the things we want to create the world that we want to live in.”

Meanwhile, in Utah, the conversation around municipal budgets varies widely depending on the wealth of the city’s residents and its respective financial stability. 

A January 2020 “crash course” talk by Kerri Nakamura, financial oversight consultant for the ​​Utah League of Cities and Towns and chief of staff for Salt Lake County, focused on rules from the state that would guide city budgeting. She was addressing a group of beginners to municipal budgeting and told them their fresh perspectives could be helpful.

“Ask questions,” she said. “Use that status that you have right now as new to government … challenge some of the ways that we’ve always been doing things because that’s where innovation happens.”

One of her key points was that a city government’s budget will reveal that city’s values. How much do they spend on parks, for example, or transportation? And while making choices around these issues, she argued, transparency toward the public matters. “Let’s have honest discussions with the public about what the revenue picture looks like, what the expenditures are, and how we can bring those two together.” 

Jack Dodson is a reporter and documentary filmmaker most recently based in Palestine-Israel from 2018-2022. He has reported for Vice, BBC, The Intercept, Middle East Eye, among many others. He has a master’s in investigative journalism and documentary from Columbia Journalism School and a bachelor’s degree from Elon University in rhetoric.