City governments make money from fining Black people. This isn’t new news. But a recent study conducted by political science researchers Michael Sances (University of Memphis) and Hye Young You (Vanderbilt University) has a solution to the problem:
Elect more Black folks to local government.
“What a lot of cities do is rely on a source of revenue that falls disproportionately on their Black residents,” Sances told Vox. “And when Blacks gain representation on the city council, this relationship gets a lot better.”
Pulling data from over 9,000 cities, the study found that cities reliance on fines and court fees as revenue is “common” and “robustly related” to Black residents. As Vox notes, the average collection was somewhere around $8 per person but rose closer to $20 in cities where the Black population was large. Using another sample of close to 3,700 cities, the study also found having at least one Black person on the city council reduced this link by almost half.
While it’s impossible to draw a finite conclusion from a single study, it is a start toward a solution. Just look at Ferguson. A report released days after Michael Brown was shot and killed by police and shared by NPR revealed “more than half the courts in St. Louis County engage in the ‘illegal and harmful practices’ of charging high court fines and fees on nonviolent offenses like traffic violations.”
After protests erupted in Ferguson in the wake of Brown’s death, another report found city officials deliberately searched for ways to bring in as much revenue from fines and court fees as they possibly could—and Black people appeared to be the target.
“These city officials are taking advantage of a population that’s basically voiceless,” Sances said. Which is why we need to be doing what we can with the power we have. “The situation doesn’t become perfect, but it becomes alleviated to a great extent.”