You’re out of prison. Now it’s time to get your driver’s license back.

Via the Washington Post

George Henry, a fast-talking man in his early 40s, takes two buses and a subway each day to attend an intensive Baltimore job-training program catering to ex-offenders. Over a six-month course with several dozen other men at the Civic Works Center for Sustainable Careers, Henry has been learning how to weatherize homes — to blow insulation, fix drafty windows and work in cramped attics. Fellow trainees learn solar-panel installation, brownfields cleanup, landscaping and other skills for jobs where a felony conviction isn’t an automatic disqualifier.

For Henry, the toughest thing about life after prison hasn’t been learning new skills, the dangers of working in construction or even his criminal record. His biggest hurdle has been not having a driver’s license, the result of a license suspension for about $700 in unpaid traffic fines he still owed when he left prison. Without a valid license, getting to class on time has been a daily challenge, and his prospects for finding a job he can get to without access to reliable transportation are dim. “It’s the weight of the tickets,” Henry said. “You can’t drive and be productive.”

Continue reading at the Washington Post.

When cities rely on fines and fees, everybody loses

They’re a tempting alternative to raising taxes, but their long-term costs far outweigh the revenue they bring in.

Originally published in Governing, September 2018.

Raising taxes is painful. That may be why, since 2010, 47 states and a number of cities have instead raised both civil and criminal fines and fees. These increases are often viewed as a conflict-free way to plug budget holes.

In the last decade, for example, New York City grew its revenues from fines by 35 percent, raking in $993 million in fiscal 2016 alone. The monies came largely from parking and red light camera violations, as well as stricter enforcement of “quality of life” offenses such as littering and noise. In California, routine traffic tickets now carry a multiplicity of revenue-boosting “surcharges.” As a result, the true price of a $100 traffic ticket is more like $490 — and up to $815 with late fees, according to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

This increasing reliance on fines and fees comes despite what we learned following the shooting in 2014 of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. A federal investigation of the city’s police department subsequently revealed that as much as a quarter of the city’s budget was derived from fines and fees. Police officers, under pressure to “produce” revenue, extracted millions of dollars in penalties from lower-income and African-American residents. In 2017, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a follow-up report finding that the “targeting” of low-income and minority communities for fines and fees is far from unique to Ferguson.

This potential for injustice is one reason why states and cities should be weaning themselves from fines and fees. Another is that these revenue boosters carry economic costs that far outweigh the short-term revenue gains.

Because the burden of these penalties falls disproportionately on people who can’t afford to pay, jurisdictions collect far less than expected and waste resources chasing down payments that won’t materialize. In California, increased fines and fees have resulted not in a treasury flush with cash but in $12.3 billion in uncollected court debt as of 2016. A 2014 study of Alabama court costs also found abysmal collection rates — under 10 percent on average — despite countless hours spent by staff pursuing payment.

States can further see net losses if driver’s licenses are suspended or residents are incarcerated for nonpayment. The report by the Commission on Civil Rights found that in some jurisdictions as many as one-fourth of local inmates were in jail for nonpayment of fines and fees. The fiscal impacts of this policy are obvious. In addition to its direct expenses, incarceration — even short stints in jail — can lead to costly outcomes, including unemployment, dependence on public benefits and greater risk of crime.

Nearly as damaging — and far more common — are driver’s license suspensions. The Washington Post reported that more than 7 million people nationwide may have had their licenses suspended because of traffic debts. These suspensions have economic consequences. “People can’t drive and go to work, which means they can’t pay the fines and fees or support their families,” says Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center.

A few jurisdictions are rethinking these revenue generators. In the lead is San Francisco, which established the Financial Justice Project dedicated to fines and fees reform. Promising efforts are also afoot in cities and states, including California, Illinois, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington state. Some jurisdictions are working to end license suspensions — a trend that could accelerate after a federal judge recently ruled the practice unconstitutional in Tennessee. Other places are considering non-monetary penalties, such as community service or instituting so-called day fines or payment plans based on the ability to pay. In San Francisco, for instance, a newly instituted payment plan for low-income residents has already quadrupled the parking fines being paid.

The bottom line: Despite the short-term boosts civil and criminal fines and fees appear to bring, the long-term cost to cities, states and their residents is likely to be far greater.

 

Why Can’t You Text 9-1-1?

9-1-1 needs to move into the Internet era.

In today’s Internet-enabled world, most people take for granted their ability to communicate with just about anyone, anywhere, and by any number of means – voice, text, email or through social media such as Facebook or Twitter.

But one essential communications service remains largely trapped in the landline era: 9-1-1.

In many parts of the United States, 9-1-1 is still rooted in the landline-telephone-based infrastructure that gave the system its start in 1968. The texts, videos, images and data now integral to rapid-fire modern communications are beyond the capacity of most 9-1-1 systems. While a concerned citizen could snap a photo of a fleeing suspect on her smartphone and post it to Facebook, she likely can’t share that same photo with a 9-1-1 dispatcher. As of November 2014, just 152 counties in 18 U.S. states even had the capability for citizens to text to 9-1-1.

But a few jurisdictions – such as Iowa and Vermont – have made the leap to Internet-enabled 9-1-1, known as “Next Generation 9-1-1.” The potential rewards include not just better public safety but cost savings in the long run.

Continued at the Washington Monthly…

The Death of “Reinventing Government”

New research says “dismantlers” now have the upper hand.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore launched modern history’s longest-running project to fix the federal government.

Posing with two forklifts loaded with federal documents, Gore vowed to streamline an “old-fashioned, outdated government” with a ruthless focus on efficiency.  By the project’s end in 2000, “reinventing government” had eliminated 640,000 pages of internal regulations, cut 426,200 federal jobs and saved $136 billion. Public trust in government rose from 25 percent in 1993 to 42 percent in 2000, the highest it had been in decades.

Today, however, trust in government has sunk back to historic lows. And as the 2016 elections approach, “government reform” is a likely plank in many candidates’ platforms.

But if it’s time for reinventing government again – the 1990s’ focus on “inefficiency” might be too pallid a prescription for government’s current woes. Americans no longer believe inefficiency and waste are the government’s biggest problems, according to a recent study by Brookings Institution scholar Paul Light. Instead, more Americans now disagree with government’s fundamental priorities. It’s not so much how government is doing its job, but what it’s doing in the first place – a problem no amount of streamlining can fix.

Continued at the Washington Monthly…

The Federal Government’s Worsening Millennial Talent Gap

Outdated hiring practices are to blame, says Partnership for Public Service President Max Stier.

Polls show that, compared to other generations, millennials believe in an active federal government.

Most millennials favor a “bigger government providing more services,” finds the Pew Research Center, while another survey by Deloitte finds that millennials overwhelmingly support government’s potential to solve such pressing problems as climate change and income inequality.

Yet only 7 percent of current federal workers are under age 30 – the lowest share in almost a decade. Why are so few millennials working in federal government?

Continued at the Washington Monthly…