Help uncover the nation’s dependence on local court fees and fines

(Photo credit: MuckRock)

For the past year, Sunlight has been actively exploring the landscape of U.S. criminal justice data. It’s been an eye-opening experience.

Through our national survey of data availability, we’ve looked at what data is available online across all 50 states and many of the country’s cities. This is the most important place to look for this data, since most U.S. criminal justice programs — whether law enforcement, courts, corrections or related services — are administered by state and local governments.

With some valuable exceptions, what we’ve found is that much of the data that people would need to evaluate the accountability of their local criminal justice programs is not easily available. This is a critical problem for people who want to know how their own local criminal justice system is performing.

Unlike the high-profile datasets that are available at the national level, data from state and local agencies is almost universally difficult to find and access. National data certainly has its problems, but what is available at the state and local level is uneven, sparse and not easily comparable. If you wanted to know if your local law enforcement was policing well or unfairly relative to other similar jurisdictions, there is little data available for you to assess that. If you wanted to know if sentences handed down in your city were harsher or more lenient than sentences in other places, there isn’t much for you to use for that. Federal intervention has created some local bright spots in data availability, but overall the key datasets for accountability are just missing.

One key dataset for accountability is collected local information about local court fees and fines. Data about local court fee and fines provides essential insight into the ways that localities may be engaging in “profit-based policing“: the practice of setting arrest and court policies with an eye to maximizing the fees and fines that police and courts can collect from the population.

Understanding whether a community depends on revenue from court fees and fines helps to answer persistent questions about whether a police force’s practices exist in order to to keep a community safe — or to meet their ticket quotas. The practice of jailing people simply for failing to pay fines is an increasingly common tactic that some describe as our modern-day debtors’ prison, and it is quite clearly linked to the serious local priority placed on collecting those fines. The shocking examples of abuses in aggressive revenue collection, such as a court demanding blood from prisoners who could not pay their court fees, suggest how many things there are to learn in this area.

Now, while information about court fees and fines — an official and budgeted source of local revenue — is public, it is often not easily available, and certainly not available in ways that it becomes easy to compare over time. Meanwhile, getting better at identifying and ameliorating this problem is essential to improving police-community relationships nationwide.  

Sometimes, we know, when the data does not come to you easily, you must encourage it along. As a way to address the need to make local court revenue data better available, Sunlight is partnering with MuckRock, a nationally recognized force in public records access, to create a repository of information about local court fees and fines. We’re starting by making public records requests of 100 large and mid-sized cities, seeking detailed logs of court fees and fines paid, any appeals of those fines and information about the private vendors who sometimes manage court fee and fine processes.

In addition to gaining MuckRock’s expertise in lodging public records requests with public agencies across the country, we’re also using their new project platform to create a space for collecting the public records we get and an analysis of the information they contain. You can read more about the project here. In addition, if you want to support our work to make information about court fees and fines available, you can do so directly! Our work with MuckRock is being crowd-funded through the project’s homepage. Your support will make it possible to fund more public records requests and more analysis, so please consider contributing if this is an area that matters to you.