Despite some slight language alterations, the intent of the drafters has consistently been to promote and support the right of every Michigan citizen to access a public library. Early on, the notion of “…using the fruits of crime to provide the opportunity and resources for knowledge, which would help people refrain from crime” was universally accepted.
Operating a library is costly. Like any business, libraries must pay for staff salaries and benefits, building maintenance, utilities, insurance, equipment, digitization, books, etc. Penal fines are a unique and important funding source. Despite repeated attempts by municipalities to usurp these funds, they account for 3% to 70% of annual budgets for public libraries. While penal fines have never been intended to be a primary source of a library’s funding, libraries depend on penal fines as reliable revenue in their budgets.
In 2008, penal fines were at their highest level -- $32 million. By 2020, penal fines had dropped to $24 million. While we expect some variations on amounts from year to year and county to county, since penal fines are constitutionally guaranteed to libraries, and funded outside of the state’s tax revenues and budget, penal fines should not be affected by the legislature or state agencies.
But they are. Even being constitutionally protected, MLA continues to see a slow erosion of this source of income for libraries across the state. What is causing this?
- Court reform/consolidation;
- Legalization of recreational marijuana;
- Increased speed limits on highways;
- Adoption of parallel local ordinances that reduce penal fines to civil fines;
- Weigh stations being bypassed with new technology and not being staffed.
Penal fines are a unique and important, yet complicated funding source for libraries. The uneven allotment of fines across the state results in a feast or famine outcome for many libraries. Until a new source of funding is secured, MLA will responsibly protect penal fines for public libraries throughout all 83 Michigan counties.