Fines and court fees are Ferguson’s second largest source of city revenue, according a report by St. Louis-based ArchCity Defenders (a pro bono legal defense group) that was quoted in an article in Newsweek last week. That has created an extremely strong incentive for police to hassle residents (who are predominantly Black) and, based on the statistics, just about everyone has had a run-in. Worse, this trend appears to match the situation around the wider county:
“Despite Ferguson’s relative poverty, fines and court fees comprise the second largest source of revenue for the city, a total of 2,635,400,” according to the ArchCity Defenders report. And in 2013, the Ferguson Municipal Court issued 24,532 arrest warrants and 12,018 cases, “or about 3 warrants and 1.5 cases per household.”
Exacerbating the problem, the report says, are “a number of operational procedures that make it even more difficult for defendants to navigate the courts.” A Ferguson court employee reported, for example, that “the bench routinely starts hearing cases 30 minutes before the appointed time and then locks the doors to the building as early as five minutes after the official hour, a practice that could easily lead a defendant arriving even slightly late to receive an additional charge for failure to appear.”
Thomas Harvey, co-founder and executive director of ArchCity Defenders and one of the paper’s authors, says that residents’ perception that the system is unfairly stacked against them gives important context for the depth of the present outrage.
“There are 90 municipalities in St. Louis County that range from 12 people to 50,000 people. Eighty-six of them have their own courts. They have their own police forces,” he explains. “What ends up being the product of all that is just a low-level sense of harassment on a daily basis. The clients that we represent feel that. It’s palpable for them.”
“They resent it because it’s not about public safety,” he adds. “These aren’t violent criminals. These are poor people.”
For my interviews with locals who have each had multiple experiences of police harassment in Ferguson, St. Louis County, and the City of St. Louis, please listen to Arsenal For Democracy 96 (open full page or at click the audio bar below).
Ferguson is particularly notorious, as the report demonstrates, but is far from unique. This is a big-picture story of the area around (and including, to some extent) St. Louis, Missouri.