Ramsey County is one of three jurisdictions selected nationwide to look at ways to reduce their reliance on criminal fines and fees as sources of revenue, which frequently can create a vicious cycle of debt and new charges for those unable to pay.

PFM, a national financial advisory firm that works with cities and counties, will partner on the project with Ramsey County, Dallas and Nashville through its Center for Justice and Safety Finance. PFM launched the center this year to examine how local governments come to rely on fines and fees to support the biggest line item in their budgets: public safety.

"Too often, fees and fines can be a form of poor tax — a revenue source that disproportionately hits low-income offenders," said David Eichenthal, the center's executive director and PFM managing director. "Progressive local government leaders understand that they don't need to choose between balanced budgets and fairness in the criminal justice system."

Eichenthal and his team, which includes former New Orleans Police Chief Ronal Serpas, will arrive in Minnesota next week to start working with Ramsey County staffers.

That work will include defining the county's system of criminal fines and fees and tallying the number of cases where fines and fees are imposed, collection rates, and the number of arrests for nonpayment and instances of incarceration for nonpayment.

They also will develop a plan for phasing out the use of fines and fees. Their goal is to present an action plan to county leaders by the end of the year.

They'll also share their findings with the National Association of Counties, the University of Chicago Center for Municipal Finance and the University of Washington.

"Our community is safer when people who have committed offenses can focus on rehabilitation and supporting their families rather than paying off an accumulated debt of fines and fees," Ramsey County Board Chairman Jim McDonough said in a statement.

'Layers of fees'

Ramsey County was selected for the project in part because of its early work in this area, Eichenthal said. The County Board eliminated its $25 jail booking fee in 2017 and has expressed an interest in further examination of its fines and fee structure.

The county will collect an estimated $1.5 million this year in criminal justice fines and fees for services that include probation, electronic home monitoring and the use of video equipment enabling inmates to speak with their families.

Fees make up less than 1% of the county's $738 million annual budget. But defendants also pay municipal, court and state fees.

"We've really become concerned about the disproportionate impact of our fines and fees. We've never taken a comprehensive look at the fines and fees accumulated by people moving through the system," said Ramsey County Deputy Manager Scott Williams.

"This is about looking at the layers of fees that are applied throughout the system. Is this really contributing to the overall goal of trying to get people out of the criminal justice system and moving on with their lives?"

In Minnesota, failure to pay fees can trigger suspension or revocation of one's driver's license, which can then lead to more fines and fees and possibly new criminal charges.

"This process is really helping us look at all those questions," said Jennifer Schuster Jaeger, Ramsey County deputy director of administration for community corrections. "What is the collective impact on people's lives? Is this making communities safer? What are we spending on this? What are we getting in return?"

Focus on revenue, not safety

Examining fines and fees also is considered part of the county's efforts to improve racial equity in all service areas. People of color are overrepresented in Minnesota's criminal justice system, Williams said.

The reliance of cities and counties on fines and fees drew national scrutiny in the wake of the August 2014 shooting of an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Mo., resulting in days of unrest. A 2015 U.S. Department of Justice report on Ferguson concluded that its law enforcement practices were "shaped by the City's focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs."

Said Williams: "The conclusions reached in the analysis of Ferguson were quite an eye-opener."

Since 2010, 48 states have increased civil or criminal fees assessed on defendants, according to the Center for Justice. Cities and counties often don't know the true cost of their fee structure, Serpas said.

"The police officer is almost always your more expensive employee, and they are being pulled in the fines, fee and debt collection system," he said.

Soured relationships

It also sours the often fragile relations between police and community members. "That's just one more negative encounter where the citizen leaves feeling angry with the police," Serpas said.

Ramsey County Chief Public Defender Jim Fleming said he sees firsthand how fees can overwhelm his clients. He said he supports reform.

"Our system isn't like Ferguson. I think when it comes to fines and fees, Ramsey County isn't a bad place for clients," Fleming said. "But all the fines and fees that build up get the clients stuck in a cycle. Folks just get crushed."

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804