Today the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law published Revenue Over Public Safety: How Perverse Financial Incentives Warp the Criminal Justice System, which catalogs the ways our justice system is driven by revenue-generating practices instead of – and often at the expense of – keeping communities safe. The report’s authors offer policy recommendations for realigning the system’s priorities so that revenue generation doesn’t drive the justice system’s priorities, which should be about fairness, equity, and public safety.
“Too many criminal justice functions – from enforcing traffic laws to managing jail populations – operate more as revenue producers than systems to achieve justice and improve public safety,” said Ram Subramanian, managing director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program and co-author of the report. “Some police departments, courts, and jails have placed such a high priority on filling budget holes that they have become cultures of ‘more’: write more tickets, make more arrests, incarcerate more people, and generate funds for the department at every step. The burden of this mentality falls squarely on low-income people and communities of color.”
Revenue Over Public Safety breaks down various aspects of the criminal justice system that provide revenue for local governments, and how these practices get in the way of maintaining public safety and seeking justice.
“We followed the money, and we found our justice system is often more invested in keeping itself alive and running rather than keeping the public safe,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice and a co-author of the report. “Until we address and chip away at these perverse economic incentives that perpetuate mass incarceration, we won’t truly be able to reduce unnecessary punitive enforcement or incarceration.”
Revenue Over Public Safety covers:
- User-funded justice: Criminal justice entities often generate revenue that they need to operate from the very people whom they arrest, detain, charge, prosecute, supervise, and incarcerate. These revenue streams include:
- Criminal fines (financial penalties that accompany convictions for various offenses)
- Criminal fees (charges created solely to raise revenue that cover a wide range of procedures and processes, including but not limited to public defense fees, crime lab fees, and jail admission fees)
- Civil asset forfeiture (practice of seizing an asset such as cash or a car suspected to have been used in alleged criminal activity)
- Privately run community supervision (contracts with for-profit companies to manage probation and parole; the companies’ fees are charged to the people on this supervision)
- Bed profiteering: Some local governments generate revenue by renting out their available jail beds to state corrections departments and federal agencies like Immigrations and Customs Enforcement or U.S. Marshals. Some offshoots of this practice include:
- Jail construction (expanding jails or building new ones to increase this revenue stream)
- Bed minimum guarantees (federal agencies paying some local governments or for-profit companies to guarantee a minimum number of open beds in their facilities)
- Pass-through contracts (counties serving as a “pass-through” entity for for-profit corrections firms, i.e., a county enters into a federal contract to house custodial populations, but instead of holding them in their own facility, it subcontracts to a for-profit firm, earning a portion of the federal payments)
- Performance metrics based on enforcement
- Police quotas
- Prosecutor conviction rates
For each of these criminal justice practices, the authors of Revenue Over Public Safety offer proposals for reconfiguring their priorities so that public safety and justice are paramount.
“We believe in reimagining and rebuilding local criminal justice systems to reduce jail incarceration and eliminate racial and ethnic disparities. To achieve this, we need to address the problematic financial incentives that encourage communities to grow the size of their justice system, which particularly harms people of color and people with low incomes,” said Bria Gillum, senior program officer at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which supported this report through its Safety and Justice Challenge.
On Wednesday, July 6 at 1 p.m. ET, the Brennan Center will host “Revenue Over Public Safety,” an online panel about the report. To attend, please RSVP here. Speakers include:
- Carmen Best: Former police chief, Seattle
- Laura Coates (moderator), Senior Legal Analyst, CNN
- Lisa Foster: Co-director, Fines and Fees Justice Center
- Ram Subramanian: Co-author of Revenue Over Public Safety and Managing Director, Brennan Center Justice Program
- Que Williams: Civil Advocate and Paralegal, ArchCity Defenders
Revenue Over Public Safety is online here.