How Cities are Transforming Fines and Fees to Advance Equity and Financial Security

December 14, 2020

Cities are being tested like never before, with the coronavirus pandemic and the racial unrest caused by the death of George Floyd and many other people of color.

Because of the pandemic, low-wadge workers and people of color are experiencing more financial stress from job loss and the inability to pay criminal justice and other debts stemming from fines and fees. This places them in harm’s way on many fronts such as wealth extraction, exposure to COVID-19 and the fear of encountering the police.

For nearly two years, the National League of Cities (NLC) has been partnering with five cities to assess their use of local fines and fees, with a focus on implementing equitable collections strategies and improving residents’ financial health.

Through Cities Addressing Fines and Fees Equitably (CAFFE), a JPMorgan Chase & Co. funded technical assistance initiative, each participating city conducted a thorough assessment of its municipal fine and fee structure. The assessments placed equity as a key pillar and covered many components including examination of the true cost of a fine or fee, its impact on communities of color, how reform may alleviate these adverse impacts, potential partners and feasibility.

Some early takeaways that have emerged from the CAFFE city assessments include:

Fine or fee reforms must address inequities impacting communities of color. As part of this effort, qualitative and quantitative city data were examined within and across city departments and agencies to help city staff identify deep-rooted inequities in their policies and practices. Creative tactics and project grant funding from NLC were used to create heat maps of impacted communities and statistical analyses of collection rates to get the answers they were seeking.

While demographic data, especially race, was often missing from the city datasets, it is clear from the data NLC does have that Black individuals were considerably more likely to be impacted by the assessed fine or fee:

• In Aurora, Colo., young Black men ages 20-24 were more likely than their white counterparts to be referred to collection for tickets related to speeding tickets less than 20 mph over the limit.

• In Baton Rouge, La., Black residents comprise roughly half of the city’s population, yet account for nearly three-quarters of total traffic fines.

• In Lansing, Mich., Black residents accounted for over half of the residents who were recently tracked for a vehicle offense related to driving without a license.

Reforming Fines and Fees Takes A Whole Community Approach to be Successful

Cities in CAFFE enacted necessary and “common sense” reforms by also listening to residents to gain a better understanding of their financial needs, forging partnerships within the community and integrating financial empowerment services into city fines and fees functions. When the city of Saint Paul, Minn. partnered with the Minnesota Justice Research Center to conduct their assessment, they were surprised to learn that a typical snow emergency extracts nearly $250,000 from neighborhoods through city fines, towing and impound fees and vehicle forfeitures, which is drawn disproportionately from low-income communities.

When cities can adjust unfair policies and residents can pay fewer fines and fees, more money remains in their wallets and more wealth circulates within local economies.

Providers of Financial Empowerment Services Are Meeting Residents Where They Are: In addition to policy reforms, NLC is also helping CAFFE cities to assist residents in addressing their financial challenges by providing access to reputable financial coaches.

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