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How Much Is Too Much?

A "money first" policy may have polluted the relationship between Ferguson, Missouri citizens and law enforcement, contributing to the recent unrest following the slaying of a black youth.

Municipal fine collections in Ferguson have increased 80 percent in two years, and the $2.5 million accounts for one-fifth of the city's revenue. One law professor estimated that the municipal court, which is in session three days a month, heard between 200 and 300 cases an hour.

In addition to live enforcement, the town of 21,000 has three red-light cameras which resulted in 5,318 tickets in 2013.

Governor Brown recently issued a warning about high PAs, stating that if the fine was too high, some people might be forced to sit in jail a few days because they couldn't afford to pay the ticket. Such an outcome turns a potential revenue source into an actual cost: instead of collecting money, the state has to pay money to house the inmate.

High traffic ticket fines in Kern County are hardest on poor people because fines are regressive. A person who earns $4,000 a month can rather easily afford a $200 ticket, but a family earning less than half that amount may be hard-pressed to come up with the money. With the average fine soaring and red light and speeding ticket fines now nearing $500 in many cases, even your typical middle class family has to budget carefully to handle their ticket. With the continued use of red-light cameras, and other money-first policies, are California law enforcement agencies in danger of alienating large parts of the population with too high fines and violations for tickets that were not dangerous?

Police officers have traditionally approached their job as a public service to protect the public from evildoers. But as more and more laws are passed making what once was legal behavior illegal, and as court costs and fees continue to rise, more of the population is starting to think of our dedicated police officers as glorified meter maids. That's a disservice to most officers and bad public policy. Let's hope California wakes up and starts evaluating how they use fines to raise revenue, rather than as the legitimate public safety tool it was originally designed to be.