A government transparency non-profit and a website that focuses on public records are teaming up in a new effort to create a comprehensive online database showing how cities depend on court fines for funding.
On Monday, the Sunlight Foundation announced its partnership with MuckRock to file public records requests with 100 cities, including the largest cities around the country, in an effort to understand what kind of fines police and courts levy and who bears the burden of paying them.
Michael Morisy, MuckRock’s co-founder, told StateScoop he was inspired to dig deeper into the issue following the Department of Justice’s report on the “unduly harsh” fining practices of the police department and municipal court in Ferguson, Missouri. The report found, “The City budgets for sizable increases in municipal fines and fees each year, exhorts police and court staff to deliver those revenue increases, and closely monitors whether those increases are achieved.”
While many municipal courts and police departments may use similar methods, Morisy believes there are few readily available ways for the public to access information about the significance of court fines beyond filing what amount to onerous, and oftentimes expensive, records requests.
“This is an incredibly important topic, but there is incredibly little information about it,” Morisy said. “A lot of people suspect that agencies factor in fines and fees and tickets as a significant part of their budget, but we don’t have an understanding of exactly how widespread this is.”
Now the two groups are pushing to raise $5,000 over the course of the next month to fund the requests in each of 100 cities. Each request seeks city records from fiscal years 2011 to 2015, including documents like calculations of revenue from court fees and fines, logs of appeals of those fines and contracts with vendors that manage the collection of fines. As the cities respond to those queries, MuckRock will post the results in a repository on its website.
“People can actually follow along with these requests and all of the data will live primarily on MuckRock as soon as we get it,” Morisy said.
While Morisy noted that his organization has plenty of experience with Freedom of Information Act requests, they were searching for a partner that could bring more expertise with data analysis to the project. The Sunlight Foundation, which was MuckRock’s “very first” financial supporter dating back to 2010, was a natural fit for the role, said Morisy. He approached the group at a foundation conference in September and the two groups quickly hammered out the details on the effort.
“This seemed like a very natural sort of point of collaboration where we could bring the public records platform that we’ve built and Sunlight can bring their expertise in government function and we could do something that could have a really major impact for a lot of people around the country,” Morisy said.
Indeed, MuckRock has already posted the initial requests it’s made of police departments in 14 different cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. As responses to those requests start to flow in, Sunlight’s analysts will begin combing through them to contextualize the results.
“Just having the raw information is a great start, but unless you have time to actually go through that, it’s hard to understand what it actually means,” Morisy said.
Josh Stewart, a spokesman for the foundation, said Sunlight will support MuckRock’s data collection efforts in the short term, but it “will mainly help once the data is more robust” and conduct a “comprehensive analysis” of the findings.
Once the results pour in and that analysis can be conducted, Morisy thinks the group will have a better sense of what its next move should be.
“A hundred should give you a good sample size, and we’ll be able to figure out ‘Do we need to go farther with this, do we need to file with more cities?’” Morisy said. “Or is there some legislation that we could push for that would help bring this transparency that we can make a good case for, without the need to file hundreds and hundreds of requests?”
Morisy adds that it’s also a question of funding, and “if we get funding to do more [requests], we’ll absolutely do more.”
But even if the groups have to stick with 100 requests, Morisy thinks the results could end up being a powerful force toward convincing lawmakers to overhaul the laws governing court fines, or even moving to make the process more transparent as a whole.
“I think it’s a really great start as we start shaping the argument that this data needs to be more transparent, it needs to be released more proactively,” Morisy said. “Without data, you can’t have an informed democracy.”