In the September Trends Monthly we wondered how many of the 12 million arrests made and the uncountable citations issued by police forces every year were “designed to swell municipal coffers and police department budgets.” In the aftermath of the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, data have been released that shows the problem is even greater than we had imagined.
The pro bono legal group ArchCity Defenders reports that Ferguson, a city with a population of 21,203 and just 8,192 households processed 37,550 cases in 2013. The fines generated — mostly starting out as traffic violations and collected under the threat of jail time — totaled $2,635,400, making them the city’s second largest source of income and providing 20 percent of its annual budget. According to ArchCity Defenders, and surely an understatement, “Many residents think that the goal of the municipal courts is to collect fine revenue, not to dispense justice.”
To keep the profits rolling in, Ferguson’s Municipal Court imposed ballooning fines and warrants for failure to appear, a situation the court seems to have encouraged by locking its doors five minutes after the appointed hour of appearance.
Under national scrutiny, Ferguson has scrambled to provide at least the appearance of greater fairness, eliminating some fines and practices — several of which (such as jailing people unable to pay) are already illegal under state law — and capping court-fine totals at 15 percent of the city’s budget.
That’s a start, but it should be noted that surrounding communities in St. Louis County are just as bad or worse, some of them generating up to 40 percent of their budgets on the backs of their poorest citizens.
What will it take to flush out similar police and court practices that are doubtless underway all over the US?