Fines and Fees as Public Financing Systems

Alabama Disparities Florida Louisiana Travel
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            Pearl River     It was painful to read a recent expose about Alabama.  The reporter had spent four months getting a handle on how fines and fees finance small town and county governments in the largely rural Black Belt and were sentencing residents into permanent penury.  The State of Alabama is no different because of limitations that businesses and the wealthy managed to win many decades ago in the state that capped the amount of taxes that could be charged.   Court fees imposed on the poor pay for tourist centers in wealthy counties.  The story went on and on.

Tragically, this is the song of the South, not just a finger pointing at Alabama, as much as they deserve their lion’s share of scorn.  Many states do the same thing.  For example, the article notes that “Florida…added 20 categories of financial obligations for defendants going through its court system from 1996 to 2010….”  All of us remember the double bind that Florida imposed on the formerly incarcerated to pay off such fines before being allowed to vote.

Closer to home, I couldn’t keep from thinking about Lake Providence and East Carroll Parish in the far northern part of Louisiana near the Arkansas border.  I drive through the area on my route regularly.  The town is near a beautiful piece of oxbow from the Mississippi River.  There are historical markers about how General Ulysses S. Grant had a canal dug there as part of his blockade of Vicksburg in the Civil War.  Driving past the cemetery across from the lake, the statute of a rebel soldier rests high above the tombs leaning against his rifle.

Time magazine named Lake Providence the poorest town in America in 1994.  According to Wikipedia, “The population was 5,104 at the 2000 census and declined by 21.8 percent to 3,991 in 2010. The town’s poverty rate is approximately 55 percent; the average median household income is $16,500.”  The population is 80% Black.  Lake Providence is the county seat, but East Carroll Parish is no different, and is one of the poorest parishes in the state and the nation.  74% of the county is agricultural.  Their history of oppression of Black residents was only broken by the Civil Rights movement.

Downtown is pocked with empty storefronts.  There’s a sign on the highway as you turn onto Main Street saying “Beware of Speed Traps.  One of my nephews got a ticket there last year.  The Capital One branch closed over the last month.  A block away is the police station with a dozen patrol cars parked out front. I was stopped recently by a patrol car and directed to follow him back to the Capitol One lot where I had stopped minutes before at the ATM.  Knowing the town well, my truck crawls through to keep below the variable speed limits.  He claimed I had left the scene of an accident.  Someone in line for the branch window had called him on his personal cell claiming I had bumped her, and the cop, over my protest, gave me a ticket for “leaving the scene.”  Modern cars allow computer devices to determine if there was an accident, the GEICO adjuster told me, as he later ran the check on my truck.  No sign of anything.  They rejected the claim.  The claimant was claiming injury, which she later retracted.  She had recently made an insurance claim for a car accident where she was not a passenger, but her sister was.  Left with no evidence of any accident, the mayor claimed that in Lake Providence, everyone had everyone’s cell phones, and he would void the ticket for leaving the scene, if I agreed to pay over $180 for a parking ticket, and if not, we could show up for a trial in a month.

That’s the way it works.  I’m lucky.  I don’t live there.  I’m just passing through every month going each way between New Orleans and Little Rock, then Little Rock to New Orleans.  I’ll make a donation to the support the city, like everyone else, the only difference being that I’ll keep moving.