In the summer of 2017, member libraries throughout Woodlands Library Cooperative started reporting significant losses to their penal fines revenue. For some libraries, the loss was negligible. For others, the loss in revenue drove budget cuts and changes to library services. But what, exactly are penal fines?
Understanding and explaining what penal fines are and where they come from has never been clear, while their impact upon library operations has always been very clear.
The Penal Fines Task Force created a document which explores the history of how penal fines came to be a funding source for Michigan’s public libraries. The use of penal fines for library funding dates back to Michigan’s first constitution, and was reaffirmed by popular vote in 1881 and at at subsequent constitutional conventions. “Anecdotally, evidence suggested that libraries were an impartial third party not directly involved in the commission of a crime or the proceedings and punishment.”
What ARE penal fines anyway? According to the Michigan Library Association, penal fines revenue for libraries comes from: 100% of the costs of a traffic violation, minus the court costs, and 30% of the costs for overweight commercial vehicles. If a violation is written under a local ordinance, the library receives no penal fines. If a violation is written under a local statute, like a parking ticket instead of a traffic violation, the library receives no penal fines.
What we have learned
As our task force was gathering their data, we learned that this situation was, unfortunately, not unique to Woodlands. Libraries around our entire state were and continue to face the same problem: penal fines revenues were declining. The ten other cooperatives around Michigan started gathering data and were discovering the same concerns:
- penal fine revenues are down
- payment to libraries is not consistent
- reliance upon penal fines averages at about 14% of a library’s total operating revenue
- documentation for libraries and for is not consistent
- the penal fines process is understood by precious few
We discovered as we spoke with local officials, there’s a lack of awareness about how much is involved in the day to day operations of a public library. A simple toolkit, the beginnings of which are found here, will let librarians and library advocates obtain current, factual information about penal fines and the impact they have upon a local library. As with most things, there is no “one size fits all” solution; some libraries rely heavily upon their penal fine revenue, while others are able to rely upon other sources, whether its a local operating millage or grants and donations. Our goal is to educate and inform, and of course, to be prepared in the event there’s a move to divert funds intended for libraries to other places.