Pennsylvania towns plug budgets with fines
Local governments bring in billions of dollars from fines and fees across the country annually – and Pennsylvania localities collected more than $202 million in 2020, a new analysis shows.
Some townships and boroughs receive so much that the revenue is a significant source to balance the budget.
The Reason Foundation analysis used data from the U.S. Census Bureau to see what fines and fees were levied through the criminal justice system, such as traffic citations and local code violations.
Nationally, local governments collected more than $9 billion through fines and fees. Pennsylvania ranked 10th overall for total amount collected, while its per-capita collections were $15.56, below the national average of $27.
“The real concept at hand is just that you have these monetary penalties 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, they can be beneficial if used appropriately because they’re an intermediate form of punishment. It’s generally less harmful to a person to be charged a fine than to be incarcerated or put on parole or probation.”
Fees, however, get attached to fines to generate revenue for a particular purpose, such as emergency services or “something tangentially related” to the punishment at hand, Nastasi said.
“This is a way for governments to raise revenue without raising taxes because it’s very unpopular to raise taxes, and it’s much easier to stack on costs to these criminal or civil punishments,” he said.
This means many municipalities come to rely on these fines and fees more than others. Smaller tax bases make fines like speeding tickets a tempting method to fill funding holes.
Jamestown, in Mercer County near the Ohio border, stands out in the analysis. In 2020, the town collected $105,000 through fines — 64% of the town’s revenue.
No other locality came close to having such a heavy reliance on fees, though others collected more revenue.
Mount Holly Springs borough in Cumberland County, the second-highest in the commonwealth, collected $127,000 in fines, but that money comprised 12% of the borough’s revenue.
Almost two dozen Pennsylvania towns, townships, and boroughs appeared in Reason’s analysis. The most fines collected were as follows:
¯ Bloomsburg: $731,000 in fines that made up almost 9% of the town’s revenue
¯ Doylestown: $350,000 in fines that made up 5% of the borough’s revenue
¯ New Hope: $348,000 in fines that made up almost 7% of the borough’s revenue
¯ Stroudsburg: $330,000 in fines that made up almost 6% of the borough’s revenue
“That’s more a product of the particular fiscal circumstances that a lot of small towns find themselves in and the opportunity,” Nastasi said.
However, larger cities have a problem with fines and fees, too.
“Just focusing on a percentage of the budget kind of lets larger jurisdictions get away with this exploitative practice,” Nastasi said. “It’s not just a problem limited to small governments.”
Fixing the problem avoids certain pitfalls, even if tax increases would be less politically popular.
“Using fines and fees to directly fund courts, law enforcement agencies, or other government activities can result in undesirable conflicts of interest,” Nastasi wrote. “In addition to these fiscal considerations, fines and fees have devastating consequences on low-income individuals, racial minority groups, and juveniles and their families.”
The analysis advocates eliminating user fees and funding courts through the state budget, as well as 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 we can retain fines — fines serve a purpose. However it’s imp that fines be used as they are originally intended, which is as an alternative to incarceration.”