On Monday the municipal court in Ferguson, Missouri, announced that it was withdrawing thousands of arrest warrants for municipal violations, scheduling new court dates, and creating new payment options to reduce incarceration of people unable to pay fines and fees. The changes followed a critical report by the Department of Justice, which followed the shooting of Michael Brown.
Three observations follow from the court's move. First, how easy it was. Second, how much good it will do. Third, how much work remains to be done.
Start with the ease. Ferguson has a population of 21,000 but 32,975 arrest warrants, more than 1.5 warrants per person. The DOJ report describes over 500 people scheduled for court at a time, waiting for hours in lines too long to fit inside the courthouse. To satisfy their warrants, people must pay the underlying fine plus court fees, and usually appear in court. Yet the overwhelming majority of Ferguson's warrants are for missing a court appearance or a single payment, creating a self-perpetuating cycle of violations. Never mind that the underlying offense is a $302 fine for a Manner of Walking or $531 for High Grass and Weeds. Payment must be made and the court must be satisfied, or a warrant will issue.
The DOJ report makes clear that the purpose of the warrants was to generate revenue. "[U]nless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year," the City Finance Director wrote to the Chief of Police in 2010, "it will be hard to significantly raise collections next year. . . . Given that we are looking at a substantial sales tax shortfall, it's not an insignificant issue." Similarly, the Finance Director wrote to the City Manager in 2013: "Court fees are anticipated to rise about 7.5%. I did ask the Chief if he thought the PD could deliver 10% increase. He indicated they could try."
To handle the higher caseload, the city added staff at the court - but only after calculating that funding for the additional positions "will be more than covered by the increase in revenues."
In 2010, court fines and fees generated 12% of the city general fund revenue. In 2015 it was up to 23%. A report for the City Council found that while other municipalities' parking fines generally range from $5 to $100, Ferguson's was $102. The fine for "Weeds/Tall Grass" was $5 elsewhere but in Ferguson it ranged from $77 to $102. The report stated that the prosecutor had reviewed the City's "high volume offenses" and started recommending higher fines.
These problems were created by the city and they can be solved the city as well. These are not ageless intractable problems like violence or drug addiction. The city simply needs simply to stop issuing so many arrest warrants. Anytime. It's easy.
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Next look at how much good it will do. One woman received a parking citation that included a $151 fine plus fees. Experiencing personal financial difficulties and occasional homelessness, she was subsequently charged with seven offenses of Failure to Appear plus additional fines and court costs. Over the next several years, she was arrested twice, spent six days in jail, and paid a total of $550 to the court stemming from the underlying charge. As of December 2014 she still owed $541 on her original $151 parking ticket.
Cases like hers will be dismissed. For thousands of individuals it will do a world of good. For community relations and the dignity of justice it will do another world of good. The judge making the rule changes said his goal was "restoring confidence in the court." Surely this will help. The DOJ report documents that people are afraid to go to court even to partially pay fines and establish a payment plan, concerned that they will be arrested on the spot and sent to jail. Such fears are fully justified by past practice, terrifying for a civil society, and easy to fix.
But let's not fool ourselves. Much work still lies ahead. Reducing excessive court fines and fees would not have saved the life of Michael Brown. Reducing excessive court fines and fees will not stop the racially biased policing documented in the DOJ report, where "African Americans are more than twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during vehicle stops even after controlling for non-race based variables such as the reason the vehicle stop was initiated, but are found in possession of contraband 26% less often than white drivers." Between 2011 and 2013, African Americans accounted for 95% of charges for Manner of Walking in Roadway. In other words, African Americans have reason not to trust the police.
The DOJ report includes page after page of recommendations relating to police use of force, training in de-escalation, officer supervision, and mechanisms for individual officer and department accountability. Beyond this DOJ report lays another DOJ report about inadequate legal representation for children in juvenile court
, with a single public defender handling all indigent juvenile delinquency cases in St. Louis County. And beyond any of that sit 32,000 people in Missouri prisons
, just one state in a nationally broken criminal justice system.
Of course, we should be happy about the Ferguson municipal court's new order.
Let us thank the new judge and accept the offer of reconciliation. But that's only the beginning. It's one tiny step towards showing that #blacklivesmatter
Eric Lotke has cooked in five-star restaurants and flushed every toilet in the Washington D.C. jail. He has filed headline lawsuits and published headline research on crime, prisons, and sex offenses. His most recent book is Making Manna.