September 10, 2017

Study: Urban police fine blacks more

Economist - In March 2015 the [Justice] Department published a report on law enforcement in the [Ferguson, Mo], which found that ]the city's] criminal-justice system seemed to focus more on generating income for the government than on ensuring public safety. Nearly a quarter of the city’s general revenues came from criminal fines, fees and court costs. Moreover, black residents paid a far greater portion of these expenses than either their share of the population or their share of total crimes committed in Ferguson would indicate. The investigators concluded that the police had displayed “unlawful bias” against blacks.

The city appears to have heeded the Department of Justice’s message: fines and fees are down 77% from their peak in 2013. However, Ferguson was unlikely to be a unique outlier, and other cities engaging in similar practices might well have continued outside of the national spotlight. A new paper by Michael Sances of the University of Memphis and Hye Young You of Vanderbilt University published this month in the Journal of Politics found that Ferguson was indeed more of a rule than an exception. After examining data on 9,000 American cities, they found that those with more black residents consistently collected unusually high amounts of fines and fees—even after controlling for differences in income, education and crime levels. Cities with the largest shares of black residents collected an average of $12-$19 more per person than those with the smallest did.

However, there was one subgroup of cities that bucked the trend: the relationship between race and fines was only half as strong in places whose city councils included at least one black member. This may be because black politicians are likelier than white ones are to respond to complaints from black constituents. Black councillors might also intervene to stop certain policies, like increasing court fees, from going into effect to begin with.

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