In Ferguson, Missouri, residents could find themselves in jail for failing to pay $19 a month to the town’s sole trash contractor. For these and other petty infractions, fees snowball over months into court dates and outstanding warrants. Pleading guilty is the norm since lawyers are too expensive for most, whereupon more fees and fines are levied. And since Ferguson’s residents could hardly afford the initial penalties, they are quick to lose their housing, their licenses, their benefits, and their dignity.
The path to prison is well worn in this small Missouri city. It’s paved with the petty crimes that ensnare the city’s poorest with fees they could never hope to repay. In the wake of Ferguson’s protests, few commentators focused on the real problem facing the city. Simply put, Ferguson is a modern-day debtor’s prison.
As Alex Tabarrok pointed out recently, Ferguson’s poverty is reinforced by rent-seeking in the criminal justice system. The city received nearly a quarter of its revenue last year from court fees—over $2.6 million out of a total city budget of around $12 million. The city’s latest financial report proudly notes that revenue from court fees is up 44 percent from 2010-2011. Warrants and criminal cases are on the rise too, with 24,532 warrants issued and 12,018 cases cleared last year, even as crime rates stayed relatively flat. That’s $321 in fees, 3 warrants, and 1.5 criminal cases per household in Ferguson.
A city doesn’t put its residents in hock by accident. Law enforcement is one of the easiest means by which cash-strapped municipal governments can raise extra revenue. Traffic policing in particular is simply a form of regressive taxation by way of the radar gun. That’s especially convenient when voters are becoming less welcoming to tax hikes. Once the surrounding legal system becomes more about revenue than public safety, it’s only a matter of time before more petty violations become criminalized and fines swell in size. It’s not just the police but the court system too that soon becomes part of the racket.
Of course, getting nabbed for a traffic violation is just the first step. That merely sets in motion the awful machinery, as ArchCity Defenders describe:
For a simple speeding ticket, an attorney is paid $50-$100, the municipality is paid $150-$200 in fines and court costs, and the defendant avoids points on his or her license as well as a possible increase in insurance costs. For simple cases, neither the attorney nor the defendant must appear in court.
However, if you do not have the ability to hire an attorney or pay fines, you do not get the benefit of the amendment, you are assessed points, your license risks suspension and you still owe the municipality money you cannot afford. If you cannot pay the amount in full, you must appear in court on that night to explain why. If you miss court, a warrant will likely be issued for your arrest.
People who are arrested on a warrant for failure to appear in court to pay the fines frequently sit in jail for an extended period. None of the municipalities has court on a daily basis and some courts meet only once per month. If you are arrested on a warrant in one of these jurisdictions and are unable to pay the bond, you may spend as much as three weeks in jail waiting to see a judge.
Yet, in all but a very few, these municipalities fail to provide lawyers for those who cannot afford counsel. As a result, unrepresented defendants often enter pleas of guilty without knowing that they have right to consult with a lawyer, although this information is on many court websites. Defendants are also sentenced to probation and to the payment of unreasonable fines without a knowing, voluntary, and intelligent waiver of defendant’s right to counsel. Despite their poverty, defendants are frequently ordered to pay fines that are frequently triple their monthly income.
If you’re a parent in Ferguson, the court system becomes almost Kafka-esque.
When summoned to one of these courts, defendants may face jail time if they fail to appear. If they lack access to childcare, they bring their children with them. According to local judge Frank Vaterott, 37% of the courts responding to his survey unconstitutionally closed the courts to non-defendants. Defendants are then faced with the choice of leaving their kids in the parking lot or going into court. As Antonio Morgan described after being denied entry to the court with his children, the decision to leave his kids with a friend resulted in a charge of child endangerment.
It should be no surprise then that Ferguson’s residents feel trapped by their own court system. As one local told ArchCity, “It’s ridiculous how these small municipalities make their lifeline off the blood of the people who drive through the area.” When levied with a fine in Ferguson, residents are often told to call everyone they know to ask for more money, and then threatened with imprisonment if they can’t scrape together enough cash.
For a city where being black and poor are often the same thing, Ferguson’s legal system is one of the greatest challenges to moving up the economic ladder. Two-thirds of residents are black and roughly a quarter live below the poverty line while a tenth of households receive housing vouchers. The number living in poverty doubled between 2008 and 2012, just as the number of convictions and incarcerations increased too. Spending any amount of time in jail, even a day, reduces earning and employment prospects for life. Even with stable employment, keeping up with the growing cost of Ferguson’s court system can be an overwhelming burden, particularly for young families.
[pq]For-profit policing buys an impoverished justice for a people indebted to those meant to protect them.[/pq]
As in most cities, committing minor infractions is often the first introduction a resident has to police and the courts, and it informs his or her view of the city’s entire legal system. In Ferguson, justice looks a lot like for-profit policing, which in turn colors how residents view anyone with a badge and gun. Residents see themselves caught in a cycle of indebtedness for the sake of a city budget.
The worst part is that Ferguson is not alone in this. Many states and localities now charge for applying to use a public defender or to receive parole and require payment to police training funds and computer projects before being let go. Riverside County in California charges inmates $142.42 a day for room and board, while charging extra for necessities like toilet paper or medical care. A 2005 survey of these “pay-to-stay” practices found that 38 percent of responding prisons charged such fees, including the overcrowded St. Louis County jail. Failing to pay these fees means facing debt that accrues at exorbitant interest rates. Missouri will also garnish state tax refunds and suspend hunting and fishing licenses until the debt is repaid. Here’s the kicker: These fees and penalties are assessed even if an individual is found to be innocent.
So when Ferguson’s police emerged in armored trucks with snipers and tear gas to put down the city’s riots, we saw what for-profit policing buys: an impoverished justice for a people indebted to those meant to protect them.