War on standards, parking ticket edition

Considering how much I hate receiving parking tickets, this is one war on standards I might get behind. However, it also extends to compliance with driving, vehicle registration, and fine-paying requirements.

The Washington Post assigned a team to investigate ticketing in Washington, D.C. The team collected five years of traffic and parking enforcement data containing more than 10 million records of infractions. It then merged that information with data from the Census Bureau to analyze enforcement records by area of the city.

The Post found that 62 percent of all fines were issued in neighborhoods where Blacks make up at least 70 percent of the population. And outside of downtown and commercial areas, fines in predominantly Black neighborhoods amounted, on average, to $7.6 million annually, compared to $4.1 in White neighborhoods.

The Black and White populations of D.C. are roughly equal in size if one counts Hispanics as Whites. According to the Post, more than half of the motor vehicles registered in D.C. are in majority-White zip codes.

Do the Post’s statistics demonstrate racial bias in enforcement or do they show that Blacks comply less with parking and traffic laws? They demonstrate neither. However, logic suggests that the latter explanation is more plausible.

Take parking tickets, about which I have some first-hand experience. D.C. meter monitors, most of whom are Black as far as I can tell, have no incentive to give more tickets to Blacks than to Whites. Neither do their bosses or their bosses’ bosses, who are also Black in most cases.

The only incentive these men and women have is to give out as many tickets as possible, so as to maximize city revenue. As one of the Post’s sources, a leading critic of parking and traffic enforcement, says, “their job is only to bring in revenue.” Thus, in all likelihood, they mostly patrol areas where violations tend to occur.

The predominately White area from Dupont Circle through Georgetown is, in my experience, heavily patrolled for parking violations. Pre-pandemic, I always understood that leaving my car there for much more than the permitted time was a risky proposition.

The same is true, I assume, in Black neighborhoods in which experience has shown there are likely to be lots of parking violations. It’s not a question of bias or discrimination, it’s all about finding violations.

The Post complains that, because D.C. Blacks are poorer than D.C. Whites, it’s more difficult for them to pay their fines. It points out that unpaid fines are doubled and that failure to pay can also result in non-renewal of license and vehicle registrations. It cites with apparently approval claims that the system is “crippling the finances of poor and working-class Black and Brown families” and “criminalizing poverty.”

You can’t have an effective traffic enforcement system that doesn’t punish non-compliance. But Black and Brown families can avoid punishment by (1) obeying the law or (2) paying their tickets on time. If one can afford to own, gas-up, and maintain a car, one can afford to pay a parking ticket. It’s only when offenders violate the rules repeatedly or refuse to pay the initial ticket that hardship may arise.

The Post also investigated traffic stops that resulted in tickets. It found that in the past two years Blacks received more than $5.8 million worth of such tickets, compared to $1.1 million for Whites. More than one-fourth of all such fines were to Blacks between the ages of 26 and 35.

Again, there is no reason to believe that these numbers reflect racial bias or discrimination. The D.C. police says it makes traffic stops in response to public safety demands. Given the disproportionate extent to which young Black males in D.C. violate other, more important laws, it makes sense that they would be stopped to a disproportionate degree and, accordingly, be ticketed disproportionately.

Looking at the overall situation, D.C. has two basic options here. It can maintain the current, non-discriminatory system, perhaps with a few adjustments, or it can forgo large amounts of revenue to accommodate Blacks who don’t obey the law and don’t pay their fines.

With the way things are going, it’s likely that the city will move in the latter direction and try to recoup much of the revenue by taxing prosperous residents. If so, I expect many of these residents to leave the city, as it becomes more expensive and less safe to remain there.

Washington, D.C. could be heading downhill pretty fast.

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