Petty Cash & Creative Revenue

Back home, there was a little town that had a little stretch of the Interstate that would go out during rush hour and ticket cars for driving underneath the minimum speed limit. The tickets were junk because the law also has a “reasonable and prudent” standard, but a lot of people would pay the fine just to avoid having to show up in court. It stopped at some point, though I am not sure by what mechanism it was stopped.

And with that, where better to find cars to ticket for inspection violations than a repair shop:

Bruce Redwine had seen enough. After years of watching a Fairfax County parking enforcement officer slap tickets on his customers’ cars for expired tags or inspection stickers, usually as the cars were awaiting state inspection or repair at his Chantilly shop, he snatched the latest ticket out of Officer Jacquelyn D. Hogue’s hand and added some profane commentary on top. {…}

They don’t understand why Fairfax police have zealously sought to enforce laws on expired tags or inspections, mainly on drivers who are making the effort to get their cars into compliance, while on private property. Hogue’s appearance in the industrial park often set off a scramble to hide customers’ cars inside the shops, the shop owners said.

“They’re harassing the small businesses trying to make it in this tough economy,” said Ray Barrera of A&H Equipment Repair. He estimated that his customers’ vehicles had been hit with $60,000 worth of fines and fees over the past six years.

Fairfax police said they are only on the property because of a letter issued by Mariah’s property management firm in 2009, specifically granting police permission to enforce county traffic, parking and towing ordinances.

Relatedly

Revenue-hungry Fairfax County is thinking about expanding the use of volunteers to write parking tickets after a five-year decline in the number of citations issued and amount of revenue collected.

The Board of Supervisors’ auditor of the board made the recommendation in a draft report that found citations had declined about 16 percent over a five-year period. Revenue fell about 5 percent despite a boost in the amount of parking fines and expanding the number of parking ordinances, the audit says.

To beef up collections, county auditors recommended that Fairfax follow other jurisdictions that have created special units of volunteers to enforce parking violations. Supervisor John W. Foust (D-Dranesville), who heads the audit committee, said he would forward the recommendations to the full board.

The worst thing of this sort to happen to me involved the former complex I lived in with my ex-roommate Karl. On New Years Day, Karl woke up to find his car missing. It seemed unlikely that someone would steal his decent but nothing-special car. He wondered if there had been some mistake, so he called the tow company on the sign in the lot and sure enough, they’d towed it. As it happened, his registration had expired with December. He asked if they were just going from car-to-car looking for expired tags. While that seemed aggravating, the truth was infuriating. No, they said, the apartment managers keep a running list and as a part of their towing contract turn over a list at the beginning of every month. As best as we could determine, the apartment complex got money from the towing company, which got money from the county.

When confronted, the apartment complex was entirely unapologetic. They basically said, “Well, you should have renewed your tags on time, shouldn’t you?”

The same is technically true of those who go to Redwin’s shop after Inspection has required. They could avoid all of this by crossing their T’s and dotting their I’s and taking care of everything on time.

The question is, though, what is the goal supposed to be here? The goal is to get people to pay for their registration and/or have their cars inspected as required by law. There are multiple ways to go about this, and consequences do have to include ticketing, fining, and at some point towing.

What the three stories have in common is belying the more powerful motivation of people trying to extract as much money as possible from people to feed the system. Whatever, system, really: Private apartment complex, private towing company, county coffers, state coffers, and individual agents whose job it is to meet their quotas management mandated goals. Which leads to some perverse incentives.

There is really no excuse to target people trying to correct their inspection situation because they are an easy target. To the extent that widespread delinquency is a problem, it makes sense to add on a general fine for late registration or inspection. I’m honestly really surprised when a state doesn’t. Back home, there is no special charge for delinquency, but whenever you do register while delinquent you are registering retroactively to prevent you from benefiting from your own lapse. Here, they don’t even do that, which is in my view excessively generous.

I don’t know what’s the case in Fairfax County and/or Virginia, and I’m honestly not sure it matters because it wouldn’t surprise me even a little bit if they got more money for delinquency and then more-more money for tickets. Fairfax County – in addition to not being a very right-wing place – has gotten a windfall from escalating property values and property taxes, but here they are. More generally, there just doesn’t seem to be much relationship between anti-tax sentiment and creative revenue-generation. I would prefer services be paid for mostly out of taxes and fair fines, of course. In part because the fines are most specifically what pays the salary of those who think it’s a good and fair idea to go to inspection stations to ticket people.

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Will Truman is a former professional gearhead who is presently a stay-at-home father in the Mountain East. He has moved around frequently, having lived in six places since 2003, ranging from rural outposts to major metropolitan areas. He also writes fiction, when he finds the time. ...more →

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148 thoughts on “Petty Cash & Creative Revenue

  1. I think the problem is that the American people want it both ways and both ways is the only way they want it.

    Americans want low-income and state-taxes. They also generally want things to be well-funded, clean, and working. It is debatable whether they want things to be cost-effective. I think the true number of anarchists and minarchists is limited. Most people want the courts open five days a week, mail delivered on six, roads and parks that are generally well-kept, good schools, etc.

    The problem is that all these things costs money and Americans hate them so income, sales, and property taxes. The solution for courts and the law is an uptick in fees and fines. They can be filing fees at court or they can be the fines you mention. Americans seem to like fining people because fines are punishing people for bad behavior.

    The big problem with Grover Norquist style conservatism is that he was able to convince people to lower taxes but not on slashing the size of government. Lower taxes might mean less police, courts open fewer days a week, libraries closed forever, etc. Surprisingly or not, people dislike this.

    There is also

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    • Also, citations for petty violations tend to hit the poorer, less likely to vote classes. A middle class person might procrastinate and get hit for expired tags, but a middle class person does have to balance between getting new tags and paying the rent. This is one in a recurring series on how it is very expensive to be poor in America.

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        • No one is doing that. If you don’t register your car the penalty is a fine. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor. Are you going to argue that being poor exempts you from obeying the law? The fine may hit you harder if you are poor but everyone is treated the same. I do think the the example cited above in Fairfax is silly.

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          • “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.”

            Anatole France, Le Lys Rouge [The Red Lily] (1894), ch. 7

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              • A poor person is more likely to be cited for a broken taillight than a middle class person. Why? I would guess that it partly has to do with where the respective cars tend to be parked. I also suspect that a car that appears to be that of a poor person is more likely to be cited. Even if I am wrong about both of those, though, the poor person is less likely to have the resources to quickly repair the taillight. Ergo, the mere fact of being poor makes said poor person more likely to be fined. That this is not the punitive intent does not change that this is the effect.

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                • In my old, poor, mostly non-white neighborhood, the police presence was large and constant. If I had had expired tags there, it would not have been long before I was pulled over and ticketed.

                  In my current neighborhood, which is mostly middle class (with upper middle on one side and working class on the other), the police presence is minimal to non-existent (the only time I see cops is when someone gets busted for shop lifting at Walmart; weirdest part for me is not seeing cop cars in the 7-11 parking lot almost 24/7). I could probably drive around my neighborhood for months with expired tags without any risk of being pulled over.

                  Of course, the real reason such things affect the poor more is that it’s more difficult for the poor to keep up with the fees to begin with. I imagine that when Austin raised its inspection fee from $12 to $60 something, the number of working class and poor people with expired inspection stickers (which are required to renew your registration, which also costs a fair amount of money) went up pretty significantly, while it had little or no impact on middle or upper middle class folks, who usually fail to get such things renewed out of forgetfulness or business.

                  And then you get a ticket, which you can’t pay, which means a bench warrant, which leaves you with the choice of spending some time in the county jail or spending rent/phone/electric/gas to get to work/food/clothes for your kids money on fines. I’ve seen plenty of people choose the latter, even though a simple speeding ticket can mean as much as a month in jail.

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                  • NJ does (or did, at least) have free inspections. Rather than going to private shops, you went to state inspection stations and got it done for free. This feels like a better way to do it.

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                  • Many people have long noticed that African-Americans have been both over-policed and under-policed in American history. There has been a heavy police presence to make sure that African-Americans know their place but they also tended to ignore African-Americans who commit crimes against other African-Americans.

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                • Intentionally pulling people in shoddy cars over for broken headlights at least approaches “punishing the poor for being poor” (unintentionally perhaps, but still)

                  Laws against broken headlights are there because we don’t want people with broken headlights on the road. Automobile registration laws are there because we want people to register their automobiles. Because these laws are in effect, enforcement against them is not “punishing the poor for being poor.”

                  Even stupid-level fines or irritating enforcement is not “punishing the poor for being poor” except where you can point rather directly to poors-only or poors-mostly enforcement. Whatever else I might say about trolling repair shops, it isn’t really that. But stupid-level fines are an effort to collect revenue which might be wise or unwise.

                  A long time back, there was the whole thing in Tennessee where a county had no fire department and a private fire department watched on while houses burned. The overwhelming sentiment was that this was ridiculous because they should have a fire department. I agreed with this at the time.

                  Until Mark Thompson pointed out that a $75 annual levy (which was what it would cost, if I recall) would disproportionately target the poor. Failure to pay it could result in poor people losing their house. Such a levy, and a requirement, would disproportionately hurt the poor.

                  That was a compelling argument, but it doesn’t flow from that a fire levy would be “punishing the poor for being poor.” It was an argument for having a fire department.

                  Rather, in that case as with this one, we should be cognizant of who is disproportionately impacted by policies that we put in place to solve problems (failure to register automobiles, maintaining safe speeds, having a fire department). But no, advocating a policy which does disproportionately affect the poor, whether good policy or bad, cannot really be reduced or clarified as “punishing the poor for being poor” unless actually directed at them.

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                  • I’m with you in supporting the notion of enforcement for safety violations- after all, what good liberal would oppose the ability of the EPA or EEOC to levy fines!

                    What makes people say that this is “punishing the poor” is the combination of reduced taxes on the rich, and increasing reliance on fines extracted regressively.

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                      • Will,

                        Catch me up to speed here. Seems to me that the phrase “punish the poor” (whether it’s simply because they’re poor r otherwise) only makes sense if the purpose – the intention – of the policy is to economically harm poor people. That’s part of what the word “punish” means, no?

                        Given that, as it’s used by most of the libertarian/policy-analyst type commenters we have here (none of which are here any longer…), the term doesn’t make any sense.

                        Seems to me “adversely effect” or some such is the correct term, yes? As in “the policy of requiring …… adversely effects the poor more than the rich”, or some such.

                        Hanley used to play this game all the time, btw. A liberal would say “I support X” and Hanley’s response would take the form of a gotcha: “Oh, so you, a good liberal, want to punish the poor eh?”

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                        • I might quibble on a minor point (“punishing the poor” versus “punishing the poor for being poor”), but I am largely in agreement with you. I don’t think state inspections can be accurately characterized as “punishing the poor for being poor” any more than revenue-generation-via-fines. (Which, if you missed it, is how the phrase came up.)

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              • From the link I provided below:

                U.S. courts and local governments have come under fire recently for inflicting fines on the poor and working-class for minor offenses in order to generate revenue. Courts in Alabama are no different, and their efforts to collect outstanding fines, restitution, court costs, and lawyer fees — mostly from indigent people — were described by the Times as aggressive. Payment-due hearings, like the one held by Judge Marvin last month, are a new state initiative.

                According to CBS News, the SPLC complaint said he often requires poor offenders to pay for their court-appointed attorney; this is allowed by law, but only if the court determines they are able to pay. They often don’t bother making that determination.

                That last sentence is phrased badly. It should read, “They often don’t bother making that determination, and require everyone to pay for public defenders.

                I believe FL was doing something similar until it gained some attention for it.

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              • Perhaps an acknowledgement that being “treated the same” in nominal terms doesn’t actually result in being treated the same in a way that actually matters.

                It’s like the difference between a head tax, where everyone pays the same dollar amount, and an assessment based on a percentage of income or assets.

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          • Framing really matters.

            “Go to jail or give blood” versus “You can avoid jail by giving blood.”

            My skimming tells me this is really the latter — that these folks would be headed to jail and this gives them a chance to avoid it. To me, that seems like a good thing. Of course, I’d still want to know if their initial jailing is justified but that is a separate conversation (or perhaps it isn’t?).

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            • This is one of those things where the implication/symbolism is unpalatable, no matter the factual side of it.

              “Your money, or jail” is just normal business as usual.

              “Your blood, sweat and tears that you normally exchange for money, or jail” makes some subtext into text – that when you take someone’s money, you may as well be taking their lifeblood. We don’t like that.

              What if they allowed people to avoid more serious sentences for more serious crimes, by donating a kidney? Would you be OK with that?

              Or would that seem like undue pressure/violating people’s bodily integrity at a vulnerable time when we kind of have them over a barrel, with the threat of jail looming?

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              • I’m opposed to this sort of thing on principle (see also, reproductive freedom), but even if I weren’t, the implications are pretty fucked up. I mean, this judge said, “Go donate blood and you will avoid a small amount of jail time and get $100 off your ticket [though that apparently didn’t happen],” but what might the next judge ask, perhaps to avoid more significant time?

                Giving people the choice between an unnecessary medical procedure and jail, even if without that choice they’ll go to jail, is at best very, very tricky ethical ground.

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              • I think that’s an almost comically unfair phrasing, though. It makes it sound like the guy’s sending police into the projects and telling people on the street at gunpoint, “give me your blood or I’ll throw you in jail.”

                But as best I can tell, at a time when hospitals are way down on blood*, he’s telling people who can’t afford fines that he would otherwise be sending to jail because they couldn’t afford them,” hey, if you want to help out and give blood I’ll waive the jail time.” I really, really do not see the Big Evil there.

                It’s like describing a judge offering community service instead of jail time, “Judge to Poor People: Be The Government’s Slave, or Go to Prison!”

                *This is true, by the way. Blood and platelets both. If you haven’t donated recently, you really should.

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                • Hey, money’s fungible, and so, in theory, anything that is WORTH money – like blood – should be as acceptable AS money to settle your debts.

                  That said, I am someone who supports legal prostitution, and I would still look askance at a judge telling a sex worker who owed a $50 fine for some other minor infraction that she could alternatively discharge her debt to the state simply by giving away a sexual freebie.

                  There’s something unsavory to me about that kind of direct pressure and quid pro quo impacting bodily autonomy coming from a government official; though I admit from a strict logic perspective, having her give away a freebie, or go out and charge her normal rate to a client and then use THAT money to pay, are equivalent acts.

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                • Next week, whole blood (I’m about a year out from getting my 10-gallon pin). They tell me that my veins are unsuitable for the apheresis machine for platelets-only.

                  I have noticed over the years that there are more and more ways that contact with the criminal justice system disqualifies you for donations. The original article that pointed to says, near the bottom, that almost all of these particular donations were eventually discarded.

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              • I should clarify. I’m undecided on whether or not this particular plan is a good thing. I am absolutely on board with alternatives to jail for non-violent offenders.

                Are you okay with work-release programs? Or community service in lieu of prison?

                It is a fine line. I’m not sure which end of it this is on. And it really risks some perverse incentives (e.g., “Hey… we’re low on blood. Go write some tickets!”) which alone might be enough to throw the whole practice out.

                Really, I was just trying to express my issue with how the article framed the practice. If there is no additional penalty for refusing to give blood, then framing it as, “Give blood… OR ELSE!” feels unfair and inaccurate.

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                • “Or community service in lieu of prison?”

                  This is why I say it’s a weird symbolism thing. If I take the community service alternative (and to be clear, donating blood IS a community service) I am, in essence, accepting a term of indentured servitude. And pretty much everyone (including me) is OK with that.

                  But if we CALLED community service “indentured servitude”, probably not so much.

                  Likewise, here, saying that you can give up part of your body to avoid jail seems…ugly (though again, to be clear, I’d take the deal to avoid jail – but IMO that’s part of the problem, jail is such a strong disincentive as to make almost any alternative comparatively appealing, so it feels as though undue coercion is being applied).

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                • @glyph

                  I really don’t know. I just think the headline was misleading and arguably false.

                  My primary objection would actually be that allowing these folks to avoid jail time is acknowledging they pose no threat. If they pose no threat, jail shouldn’t be on the table.

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        • Did those who were turned down by the blood-collecting organization still get credit? I’ve been a regular donor for years, and the list of reasons that get you disqualified continues to get longer. I’m pretty much their ideal donor — healthy, happily married, averse to tattoos and piercings, and don’t travel outside the US and Canada. The only thing that would make them happier is if I were O-negative rather than O-positive.

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          • From the article, that specific point wasn’t addressed, but it does mention that people who did donate did not always see the reduction they were promised.

            Probably because the courts don’t really have a process for processing the blood coupon.

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    • Saul,
      I’d have a lot less issue with your critique IF the states actually used the money we are taxed for the stuff the taxes are claimed to be used for. Take the state transportation fund. In many states, it’s robbed to cover the regular operating deficit and never replaced. There the gov’t claims poverty and that the roads need repair so gas taxes have to go up. Bait and switch. If the gov’t actually came up with a budget that could be paid for before making commitments to the local gov’ts there wouldn’t be this problem.

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      • I fall in between. It is clear that townships and counties do use things like this to keep their taxes low. Which is a great way to get The Man Behind The Tree to pay for city services.

        On the other hand, I think counties are acting more like the apartment managers than they will admit. They simply want more money, and raising more taxes won’t change that dynamic because if you do they will still want more money. Fairfax County *should* be looking at a pretty significant influx from raised property taxes due to increased property values. And yet they’re still coming up short. Hmmm.

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        • That is the price we pay for a government that can move quickly. I mean, one way to prevent governments from constantly wanting more money is to demand that every new source of expenditure go to the voters, but A) that kinda defeats the purpose of a representative government, and B) it makes it hard for the government to respond to rapidly changing conditions.

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            • Of course, we could demand that governments establish emergency funds, then force them to put to a vote any changes to the size or conditions of withdrawl for the fund. Similar approaches could be taken for other budgetary concerns.

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          • Alternatively, Colorado’s TABOR amendment. In its original form, all tax rate increases or new taxes had to be approved by the voters. Year-over-year revenue was allowed to increase at the rate of inflation (essentially, Front Range CPI change) plus population growth. Reserves up to 2% of the budget could be held as a contingent against some emergency need. Excess revenues to be returned to the taxpayers in the year after they were collected. Borrowing across a fiscal year boundary requires voter approval.

            It made the budget process at the state level much more… interesting. And yes, every problem you can imagine happening under those terms has happened. Some of the constraints have been relaxed by the voters, particularly at the local level. State-wide changes, not so much.

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      • Americans are tired of their taxes getting pissed away by careless or egotistical politicians or bureaucrats, who never seem to suffer much for their transgressions.

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        • Yet, they still insist on the high level of services that high taxes bring and transfer the need to pay for these services to the least powerful members of society through punitive fines. As Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., once remarked “taxes are the price tag of civilization.”

          I also challenge your reasoning for the drive for lower taxes. Most of it was a result of campaign by wealthy people who wanted lower taxes for themselves and resentment that African-Americans were getting assistance from the government finally.

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          • Reading too much into it, I was only commenting on the sense of Patriotism in paying taxes.

            Now instead of a sense of pride in paying the fair share, it’s more of the sense I have in paying my phone bill. Yes, I need to do it, because I used the service, but I know I probably got overcharged for a service that could probably be better, and chances are somebody running that service is up to some manner of no good with the money I paid.

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        • I find this comment absolutely enraging.

          Americans are told — largely by conservative politicians — that government budgets are chock full of “waste, fraud and abuse”. Those of us who have represented public agencies joke about the line item “WFA”. (There are agency lawyers who will swear that at least once during their career a newly elected official asked where was the WFA line item on the budget. My experience wasn’t quite so bad, but close.)

          But you know what? Public agencies meetings and budgets are open. If you are so damned tired of excess taxation, then get off your oversized posterior and get educated. If it’s a politician, vote against him. If it’s a bureaucrat, go read the budget! Learn what their statutory and regulatory duties are. Compare their budgets to budgets of similarly situated agencies. File public records act requests to get copies of reimbursements. Attend public meetings. Ask to meet privately with your elected official. Learn where your money goes.

          Here in California, at least, you will find that public institutions are for the most part well run. Yes there have been a few cases of persistent corruption and I’m sure that there are more festering somewhere. But time and again I’ve sat in agency meetings where some outraged member of the public simply refuses to accept that running a public agency well requires a maintenance budget, a capital budget, and competent educated staff who require a competitive salary.

          This isn’t Greece (or the mythical version of Greece kicking around that’s probably grossly unfair). Corruption just isn’t a major budget line item for most agencies. If you want significantly lower taxes you’re going to have to get agreement to roll back services significantly. But in the 20 years of public agency work that I did, I never once — quite literally — heard an anti-tax activist state that when elected she would reduce services. She always promised that when elected she would ensure that the agencies under her jurisdiction would perform the exact same services for less money, by rolling back salaries and cutting WFA.

          Mostly, they ended up cutting the maintenance budget. It’s the easiest to hide. And who cares anyway? A little deferred maintenance isn’t so bad. We can backfill when the economy improves. Nothing serious should break in the next couple of years, and by then she hoped to be in higher office. And if something does break, blame the general manager anyway. Who’s in a position to figure out where the real blame lies?

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          • Well run & fiscally responsible governments don’t make the evening news & then get blasted across the internet. Same with well run companies.

            I mean, there’s probably thousands of communities in CA, but I betcha most people remember Bell.

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      • And after being led into several wars, who’s reasons were partially made up/contrived, where the blood and treasure of this country was squandered on stupid wars, while we watched the elite face no personal impact but only get richer, we wised up.

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      • You mean the Patriots that spent 300 dollars for a substitute in the Civil War? The millions that only went because there was a draft in WW1 an 2? The Patriots that got college deferments during the Vietnam era?

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        • Brandon was making a common argument used against the idea of an income tax or property taxes. According to certain theories, these taxes are bad because they punish good behavior like working hard, acquiring private property, and building businesses because people who do the best have to pay the most taxes.

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        • Income taxes really aren’t “paying for something you use.” The amount you pay in income taxes has very little relation to your consumption of government services.

          Anyway, my point is that income taxes are, broadly speaking, a tax on good behavior. We want people to do more productive work and make more productive investments. This isn’t a good basis on which to levy a tax, because it discourages productive activity.

          Fines, on the other hand, have the virtue of simultaneously raising revenue and discouraging socially undesirable behavior. They’re a Pigovian tax of sorts.

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          • I suspect that I (as a high earner) benefit more from the stability, safety, and other services provided by government (CERTAINLY including social safety net programs that make the least fortunate Americans’ lives somewhat better) than those in the lower middle class.

            If you look at a lawless country, you see people like me (not to mention the actually-very-wealthy) living in barricaded communities protected by private security. Which is both less secure than I am here and very expensive.

            Seems to me exactly that I’m paying more (in purely financial terms) for something I both use more and disproportionately benefit from (also in purely financial terms). And, of course, no one really goes Galt (and certainly not over 39%) so the perverse incentive is purely theoretical.

            Now, sin taxes are also good, because as you note they can discourage socially undesirable behavior. Bag taxes, for example, really do work wonders. But just about any sin tax is going to be hugely regressive (unless you’re talking about a tax on stock transactions designed to ding high-volume traders, for example) so they need to work as a supplement to the core revenue collection model rather than as a replacement for it.

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        • I think BB is implying that making lots of money is good behavior…

          Also, Saul is wrong about Norquist’s objectives. He’s interested in persuading CCers to lower taxes, but he’s not interested in persuading them to reduce spending. In fact, the logic – shot all to hell at this point – goes the other way: if you persuade CCers to lower taxes, spending will necessarily be reduced because it drowned in bathtub. Or something.

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          • I think BB is implying that making lots of money is good behavior…

            More precisely, that the kind of behavior that leads to making lots of money is usually socially desirable.

            Experience has taught me that when dealing with certain individuals here it’s necessary to qualify that statement with an acknowledgement that correlations are real-valued.

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  2. One of my favorite completely impossible political ideas: Fines don’t go towards anyone’s budget. The money just disappears. We rely on the Federal Reserve to set the overall supply of money. The criminal justice system can assess fines as punishment, but it’s always a cost center, not a source of revenue.

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  3. What I find super aggravating is the “administrative fees” that get tacked on to the tickets. In my experience, these can’t be dismissed by the judge. You are paying for the ‘privilege’ of paying. I’ve seen them run between $50-75. I assume this is to cover the cost of the proceedings but why is that necessary? Do we not have room in the budget to pay judges and court officers and to keep the lights on in the courtroom?

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  4. Will:

    As someone that lived in Fairfax, I can tell you the reason they are so aggressive in finding new sources of revenue is that they already charge quite a bit in property taxes and other fees. Don’t get me wrong, life is nice there and they have great schools, parks, roads etc. but you definitely pay for it.

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      • It’s gotten more adverse as it’s gotten more diverse, but the primary driver of aversion to new/higher taxes now is a two decade run of property values increasing *and* millage rate increases. Though the total tax bill for the typical SFDH is still far less than the typical bill in suburban NJ or CT.

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      • True, they’ve not been adverse to taxation but after a while most folks get tired of higher taxes and want their gov’t to either cut the budget or find new revenue streams. People who will complain about higher taxes won’t necessarily complain about zealous tag enforcement.

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    • You and I probably see voluntary blood donation very similarly. I don’t consider this voluntary. It certainly doesn’t fit any definition of “voluntary” that you’ll find in medical ethics. And once it ceases to be voluntary, it becomes an unnecessary medical procedure that you are coerced into undertaking. It may be a very safe one for healthy adults, but that is only relevant when considering the severity of the ethical violation, not whether it is one or its potential implications.

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      • Yeah, this is kind of like that bill that was trying to mandate the transvaginal ultrasounds for abortion seekers. Once you are physically entering the body, via probe or needle, a boundary is literally being crossed.

        Safety isn’t the question, intrusiveness is.

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      • Well, a couple of things…

        1. I think it’s really, really different.

        For example, to take your example from above, where you tie in reproductive rights as a corollary to donating blood.

        I think an employer encouraging a pregnant employee to get an abortion would be profoundly unethical. I also think an employer encouraging their employees start birth control, or encourage their employees to use a certain kind of birth control over another, would also be profoundly unethical. So too would an employer that encouraged their employees to schedule c-sections rather than have natural births.

        An employer encouraging employees to donate blood or get flu shots? Worse still, an employer that not only encouraging it, but taking the effort to have blood drive trucks and nurses show up to the office to enable their employees to undergo the, as you put it, “unnecessary medical procedures?”

        Not remotelythe same thing.

        2. OOC, I’m assuming you are not pro-indentured servitude.

        Would you feel the same way about a judges that offer community service instead of jail time for things? After all, it’s the same degree of ‘voluntary’ for the convicted person as the donating of blood, and it will be work they won’t be paid for.

        If you feel community service should never be offered, then I’m OK to agree to disagree. If you are OK with community service instead of time served, though, what it the difference?

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        • You’re still in the realm of the voluntary. My employer in fact encourages both flu shots and blood donation, complete with having nurses show up to give flu shots and trucks show up to take blood. But it’s entirely voluntary and it does not have any impact on my employment whatsoever. The moment either of those things did, they’d become unethical, because it is a violation of my bodily autonomy and a pretty clear violation of basic medical ethics.

          Now, an employer even suggesting that a woman have an abortion is unethical, not because it is a violation of her bodily autonomy (necessarily), but because it is an intrusion into her life beyond the scope of what the employer has any business trying to influence, and in particular, it is the sort of intrusion that can only be applied to women. If the pressure essentially renders the abortion involuntary, it is again the same sort of ethical violation as coercing blood donation, though it is a much more severe one.

          I do not pretend to believe that a forced pregnancy is no worse, in practical terms, than forced blood donation, but they are both examples of the same category of ethical violation. Again, the severity of the violation is irrelevant to the determination of whether it is, in fact, an ethical violation. It’s hard for me to understand how it could not be considered unethical.

          I will ask you this question, though: where would you draw the line? When does a medical procedure become sufficiently intrusive, or dangerous, or whatever, to be considered off limits in court? I assume you’d consider a judge asking a defendant to donate a kidney to avoid a significant prison sentence (let’s say… 15 years). So where in between blood donation and kidney donation do you draw the line?

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          • It seems to me that your objection here is based primarily on the fact that blood donation can be classified as a medical procedure, regardless of the actual burden it imposes. Am I incorrect in assuming that you’d be fine with a number of equally burdensome alternative punishments, as long as they could not be classified as medical procedures?

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            • It depends. I might still have objections, but they would be different. Where bodily autonomy related to medical procedures are concerned, I think “voluntary” does the bulk of the work (and I suspect pretty much any medical ethicist will agree with me, though Rose would know better than I, as she is an actual expert on such things). My worry about medical procedures in particular is that there is no hard-and-fast definition of intrusive or dangerous (donating blood is of course extremely safe if you don’t have certain health conditions). Where do we draw the line? Are we going to rely on judges or employers are whoever to make distinctions? Do we enshrine such things in law: “These procedures are OK as alternatives to imprisonment of lengths exceding n days,” say?

              We were just talking about caning the other day, and I wondered allowed (as others have here in the past) whether corporal punishment might be a better alternative than years of lost liberty. Could we consider having blood drawn a form of corporal punishment? What about my kidney example?

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              • Hmmm…

                I think it’s hitting me how right I was when I said earlier that I think of donating blood very differently from everyone else here.

                The analogous event to donating blood to me is spending the afternoon helping out at a soup kitchen, it is not donating a kidney. I get where if you saw the analogous event as the donating of a kidney that obviously you would never have it as an option to… well, to anything, really.

                I think I’m going to just file this under Things We See So Differently That All We Can Do Is Agree to Disagree.

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                • We oughta start a list.

                  It reminds me of Oscar’s analogy to the normalization of automobiles as an argument for normalizing guns in society. I can sorta tease out where he’s coming from, but in the end I just don’t think that a fully locked and loaded open-carry society is a normal one. And he and I are most likely never gonna find a place to put that disagreement except under the agree-to-disagree file.

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                  • To be fair to Chris, Glyph, and Oscar, (I think) I see where they are coming from. And as I said, I think the disagreement stems from how one views donating blood.

                    To whit, for me the question about donating kidneys is akin to the insistence that if the gays are allowed to marry what’s to stop people from boinking turtles and NAMBLA from being ok? And for them, it’s wondering why the government should be allowed to force people to give up parts of their bodies. All because, as I say, we view blood donations pretty differently.

                    Maybe my last point is that if I ever have the city of Portland follow through and give me a $3-6k fine for cutting down those trees in my yard, I will kiss full on the lips any judge that tells me I can have the balance waived if I walk over to Red Cross and donate a pint.

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                    • Tod,

                      It’s only because you see where they’re coming from and still disagree that it’s an agree-to-disagree situation. That is, if you didn’t see where they were coming from you’d think they were wrong, yes?

                      My guess, tho, is that they think you’re just wrong. :)

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                    • Tod Kelly: I will kiss full on the lips any judge that tells me I can have the balance waived if I walk over to Red Cross and donate a pint.

                      The problem (as I see it) isn’t the donation to fulfill the obligation, it’s the fact that it is the donation alone the fulfills the obligation, with no option for any other similar option besides money or jail. I mean, if the Red Cross took donations from anyone & everyone, and I mean that literally, then it would be much less of an issue for me. But they don’t, they have a long list of disqualifying criteria & as pointed out above, poor people tend to fall on that list much more than middle class & above.

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                    • I’ll admit that to the degree I am arguing against this, it’s a bit of a “slippery slope” argument, centered around bodily autonomy and the undue leverage that state-threatened jail time represents.

                      But as someone who does feel that the state needs bright lines restricting what it can’t do (or request to have done) to citizens except in extraordinary circumstances, it seems to me that “penetration” (be it by a needle, or by a cavity search, or by a transvaginal ultrasound) is a good place to draw it.

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                    • Oscar,

                      After I posted that I realized I didn’t you in that comment, so apologies about that.

                      Also, I really didn’t mean re-start that conversation right now, and certainly didn’t mean to take a shot at your view. If you’re still planning on writing a post on some of this stuff, we’ll pick it up there.

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                    • Query: Do you find rural places where open carry is common? I don’t’ mean hunting rifles in the back of the truck, but carrying pistols on your hip kind of thing. I’ve rarely seen that in rural alaska unless people were actually out on a hiking trail in bear country( which is the entire state).

                      I know of one guy years ago who open carried in a very small remote community and all the locals thought he was a dangerous nutbag partially for wearing his gun into the coffee shop. Outside of rural AK i can’t say i’ve see open carry in other rural areas.

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                      • When I think rural, I think more long gun or handgun on the hiking/hunting trail, less going about in small towns; but I’ve been places where it wasn’t uncommon to see people openly armed about town.

                        But, when I was in Juneau this summer, I will admit that I saw no one going about openly armed, and Juneau isn’t exactly high density urban.

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        • On community service, I don’t know what to think of the question. It is definitely true that I oppose indentured servitude (well, except the hard core libertarians, amIright?), but a.) I’m not sure that’s what this is, b.) “voluntary” plays a specific and important role in medical ethics that I’m not sure has a strict analogy in this case (see also, capitalism). I think there are some pretty important ethical issues related to community service, because like the fines with which this discussion began (or which are a big part of the discussion in communities like Ferguson, MO), it is easily abused, but I’m not sure I can think of an argument in my head for why community service sentences are not OK but imprisonment for any non-violent crime is.

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          • Well, if we want to go down this road… aren’t all forms of punishment ethically dubious, especially for petty crimes? As I understand it, the deterrent effect is not particularly strong. Furthermore, the hardships inflicted by the punishment often extend beyond the guilty individual, e.g. to the individual’s family. And that isn’t even getting into the potential for abuse.

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                • The Scandinavian countries are special. There systems work but I think its going to be good luck getting the United States or really many other countries to go along with them. Even other European countries or other homogenous countries like Japan tend to take a harder approach to criminals for better or worse. The Scandinavian approach to justice is counter-intuitive so its not going to be adopted on a wide-scale fast.

                  All Scandinavian countries have a small population with Sweden at just under ten million people as the most populous one. One problem is that the Scandinavian system might not scale up in the same way that Israel’s approach to airline security only works because they have one big international airport for the entire country. In countries with tens or hundreds of millions of people, demographics are always going to lead to a more bureaucratic and impersonal system even if it is welfare friendly like France.

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                  • Most of our prisoners are in state prison or jails, not the federal prison system. So this is a reform that could be enacted gradually, on a state-by-state level (only eight of the fifty states have populations over 10 million). Scale is not the issue: it’s a matter of cultural attitudes and political will.

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    • There is also the issue of a person being unacceptable for donation, or the person who gave last week, both of whom are being unfairly denied the opportunity others have.

      And that is before we get into the whole, “the reduction in fines didn’t actually happen.”

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        • Same answer, is it an option all can uniformly take advantage of? If the community service was limited to, say, breaking rocks with a sledge, then the weak, infirm, & disabled are unfairly denied this opportunity.

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          • Is there an assumption in here that a blood donation as community service counts for more than the hour or less the process takes (check in, filling out forms, pulse/BP/iron content tests, the donation, and the waiting afterwards to see if you’re going to go into shock)?

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          • Well then, think of the ordinary kind of community service, whatever that means to you. It might be something doing work at the library, or 100 hours picking up trash at the park. Any of those things. Or better yet, you decide.

            Should it be forbidden?

            And keep in mind, that anything you and I might be able to do, a single mom that works full time might not.

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            • I have no issue with Community Service, as long as an effort is made to be reasonable. Telling a single mom working full time that she has 2 months to complete 100 hours of community service is unreasonable. Telling her she has to work at least 4 hours every weekend doing so is less so (if she has weekends off).

              Now if the judge had offered to treat a blood donation toward a community service obligation, that would also be fine, since it is merely another path toward meeting the obligation. But offering $100 for donations when not everyone can do that, and having no other alternatives for those unable to donate, strikes me as unfair.

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              • Thinking more about this, it really muddies the waters on what the “point” of the criminal justice system even is.

                If we are willing to let someone avoid jail by donating blood, implicit in that stance is an acknowledgement that this person does not pose any sort of ongoing threat to society. If they did, we should imprison them. It also would seem to have no deterrent effect. Very few people would say, “Ya know, I would break law X but, man, giving blood? That’s the WORST!” And it is quite obviously not about rehabilitation.

                Which means we seem to have landed squarely in the realm of making restitution… if not to the ‘victim’, at least to society itself (and sometimes ‘society’ is the ‘victim’, especially in cases like parking fees).

                And, hey, I’d much rather see a criminal justice system with a focus on restitution — on righting wrongs — than one based on punishment. But if our goal is restitution, than why the hell were we going to throw them in prison in the first place???

                The issue, it seems, is that we are willing to say, “We can either punish you or position you to make good.” That seems… screwy. I suppose a better way — or the way I’d prefer — to frame it would be, “Hey man… you screwed up. We want to give you every opportunity to make it right. Here are four or five options. If none of these appeal to you, propose your own. If you have no interest in making it right, then we’ll haul your ass off to jail.”

                But this is a half-baked scheme so I’m sure it is awful. Thoughts?

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                  • Heh… my thoughts (or thought?) are that I come across to very different types of librarians but never seem to meet anyone in the middle.

                    I will be blunt for the sake of simplicity and clarity…

                    One group strikes me as largely social awkward. They seem to love books but the moment an interaction requires anything beyond simply checking out or return a book, things get weird. They often seem to act as if they wish they were left alone with the books. These people, I find very difficult to work with.

                    The other group are often very good with interpersonal skills and quite adept at their jobs. They almost seem to crave interactions beyond checking out books, but are still largely focused on the literary world. They want to discuss new releases and make recommendations. These people, I enjoy.

                    The existence of both groups is unsurprising, but the seeming lack of existence of a middle ground is surprising. I’d think there’d be more of a spectrum but instead it seems both binary and largely opposite along at least one variable.

                    Also, separately, while Googling pictures of male librarians, I came across the term “Guybrarian.” That made me want to punch people.

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                      • All I know is they work in a library and stand behind the checkout desk. I wouldn’t be shocked if they weren’t true librarians, as they are often frazzled by the slightest question or complaint and seek someone from Group #2 for support. I wouldn’t be shocked if they were volunteers or paid employees who got into the gig because they love books and believe in libraries and want to be a part of them. Which is a legitimate reason for their presence. But ideally the libraries would assign them roles that didn’t piss me off.

                        And, yes, this is the first worldiest problem ever. It’s more of an observation than anything. And as a believer in and patron of libraries, I appreciate and his comrades for making it all possible.

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                        • Thanks, Kazzy. I’m not sure how much I contribute to the functioning of the library that patrons tend to see. I do reference shifts and help researchers with specific questions, but most of my labor (thankfully for me) is backroom stuff, organizing manuscript collections and doing sundry other things I didn’t used to realize were part of library work until I got the job. (And it’s all pretty fascinating, too.)

                          I do tend to think of people at circulation to be customer service workers. I don’t mean that pejoratively. What I mean is that they are probably in positions where they don’t necessarily have the authority to make certain decisions or where patrons get angry with them when they have to tell them (the patrons) something they don’t want to hear (overdue fines, length of time to get ILL books, etc.). And since I’ve never worked circulation, I’m inclined to cut them a lot of slack. I don’t know if this is the same thing, but it strikes me that it’s probably a little like what it is to be a bank teller, a job I did have and a job for which the incentives to “ask a supervisor” for what seemed like a very simple question were ranged between medium-strong to mandatory, even though to the customer it probably seemed like there was no reason to.

                          At my library, the circulation folks seem to be very well-trained and professional and perhaps not the stereotpyical persons who gets frizzled at the simplest question, but that might be a function of it being a university library, where people tend to have benefits and either full-time schedules or at least reliable part-time schedules. At my own public library, I can see people who are probably closer to that stereotype but even there, I don’t quite see the same dynamic in operation that you do.

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                    • ,

                      Sorry I just noticed your comment just now. I’m not sure which kind of librarian I am, although I’m probably (I hope) more like the second than the first.

                      And actually I’m not really a librarian in the sense most people mean, although I work in the “special archives” section of university library, which is kind of it’s own thing. A lot of my colleagues in my department describe themselves as “archivists” first and “librarians” second. And even frequent visitors library often don’t know about our department. Most of the coworkers of my rank or higher have an MLS, although I do not.

                      I think I know what you mean about the two types. I know this isn’t the same thing you were referring to with type #2, but I do have watch how much I recommend things to people. Because I have a background in history (I’m kind of the “historian on duty”) and have my own approach to how to do historical research, I often have the temptation to “advise” patrons on how to do their own research and I recommend things that I’d look at if I were doing their project. That’s not always helpful to patrons. At best, it can sometimes show them something they hadn’t thought of. At worst, it can seem like annoying badgering.

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  5. Brandon Berg: Fines, on the other hand, have the virtue of simultaneously raising revenue and discouraging socially undesirable behavior.

    One of the main conclusions I draw from Will’s original post is that this is not true in general, since these two functions tend to contradict one another. That is, the incentive to increase revenue leads to the fines being enforced in a way that fails to discourage the undesirable behavior.

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      • When do you expect human nature to dramatically change? The only reason most lawyers are in business is b/c folks do the wrong thing. I tell others all the time that I’d be more than happy to be out of business if folks would behave themselves.

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        • Behaving themselves isn’t the issue.
          Respecting contracts and writing the loopholes into the contracts is the issue, no?

          Of course, people do tend to get kinda butthurt when they figure it out… but that’s truly no reason to sue someone else.

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        • The problem is when communities start making all manner of minor transgressions illegal solely as a way to raise revenue & not because such things were really a problem that required law enforcement, if at all.

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          • That may be a problem but the article discusses over zealous enforcement of existing laws. There is also the question of hiking already existing fines and fees on minor things to bring in more revenue. Does it matter if the gov’t charges a $100 fine for an expired plate instead of $25?

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            • Actually, I seem to recall the article talking about the city council adding new rules specifically as a way to generate more fines (like allowing volunteers to issue citations, or having local police enforce laws from higher jurisdictions – something that is usually not done as the rules are often in conflict or poorly applicable to the local situation). Both are things that would most likely get tossed by a judge, but the city is counting on most people not having the time to go before a judge & the knowledge to argue against it.

              And yes, it does matter if the fine is $25 vs $100. A fine should be set at a value that discourages the bad behavior for the majority of would be offenders. Spiking the fine just to gain revenue is subverting the whole purpose of a justice system.

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              • “And yes, it does matter if the fine is $25 vs $100. A fine should be set at a value that discourages the bad behavior for the majority of would be offenders.”

                It seems to me that $100 works better than $25. How is a city supposed to decide what amount will change the behavior of the majority, surveys or a study maybe? Ask 100 speeders what amount would get them not to speed? $25 fine doens’t mean as much to me as it means to some folks. $100 gets my attention a lot more quickly. Not to mention that a $25 fine doesn’t mean as much as it did back in the 80s. As far as “spiking” a fine to increase revenue, how does it prevert justice? I thought the idea was to stop folks from doing X, if that X is speeding, parking in the wrong place or letting a tag lapse?

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                • For the sake of argument, let’s say $25 was getting the job done. The number of people who let their plates lapse is <5% of the whole. To me that sounds like a reasonable compliance rate (perfect compliance on such administrative things is almost never accomplished, since feces occurs). In this case, spiking the fine solely because the government needs more money is, to me, morally wrong, specifically BECAUSE the justice system should not be used to generate revenue. It sets up a number of perverse incentives if it is (see: Civil Asset Forfeiture, etc.)

                  On the other hand, if 25% of people let their plates lapse*, then perhaps a spike to $100 is justified, and if it brings in some extra revenue while everyone gets more diligent about getting their plates renewed, hey, bonus! The DMV gets some extra money for a little while that they can use to, I don't know, upgrade their servers or something.

                  *This assumes the government hasn't done something to make renewing plates onerous, like limit the hours of the plate renewal window at the DMV to 10-2 on Tuesdays & Thursdays with an hour off for lunch.

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