Michael Brown's death is currently one of the main sources of tension between police and civilians in Ferguson, Missouri. But a new report may give the city's residents even more cause to be angry; it suggests Ferguson's municipal courts are targeting lower-income African-American residents to turn a profit.
The report from ArchCity Defenders -- a legal group that "works to break the cycle of 'revolving door justice' in the St. Louis metropolitan area" -- reveals that in 2013, “the Ferguson Municipal Court disposed 24,532 warrants and 12,018 cases, or about 3 warrants and 1.5 cases per household.”
In Ferguson, the "majority (67%) of [the city's 21,203] residents are African-American" and "22% of residents live below the poverty level," the report mentions before going on to say:
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 a court employee, the docket for an average court session may include as many as 1,500 cases. Assuming an 80% conviction rate, the average fine in a case resulting in a guilty verdict would be $275.
In addition to such heavy legal prosecution, Ferguson and other municipal courts engage in a number of operational procedures that make it even more difficult for defendants to navigate the courts. For example, a Ferguson court employee reported 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.
The group set out to examine how the court system in St. Louis County treated its clients after some complained of harassment, mistreatment and jail time for failure to pay fines. While ArchCity Defenders acknowledged that a majority of the 60 municipal courts analyzed treated clients well, it found Ferguson was among the "chronic offenders."
Ferguson is the site of racial tension and civilian clashes with police, following the killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown on Aug. 9 by police officer Darren Wilson. Data from ArchCity Defenders suggest Ferguson officials and police may have more explaining to do relating to the city municipal courts' hefty caseload and the racial implications tied to it.
According to the report, in Ferguson, 86 percent of traffic stops involved a black motorist; by comparison white motorists comprised 12.7 percent of vehicle stops. What's more "after being stopped in Ferguson, blacks are almost twice as likely as whites to be searched (12.1% vs. 6.9%) and twice as likely to be arrested," the report states.
"I can't tell you what's going on in the mind of a police officer but, in the mind of my clients, they're being pulled over because they're black," Thomas Harvey, executive director and co-founder of ArchCity Defenders, told Vox. "They're being pulled over so the city can generate revenue."
An unnamed defendant in ArchCity Defender's report echoed that sentiment: "In Dellwood, Ferguson, basically in North County, if you're black they're going to stop you."
Alex Tabarrok, a professor of economics at George Mason University, says ArchCity's findings are the result of the city police's tendency to make “bullshit arrests.”
In a blog for Marginal Revolution he writes, in part: "You don’t get $321 in fines and fees and 3 warrants per household from an about-average crime rate. You get numbers like this from bullshit arrests for jaywalking and constant 'low level harassment involving traffic stops, court appearances, high fines, and the threat of jail for failure to pay.'"
Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum asks a question about the system that has yet to be answered: "Why?"
“Why are police departments allowed to fund themselves with ticket revenue in the first place? Or red light camera revenue,” writes Drum. “Or civil asset forfeiture revenue. Or any other kind of revenue that provides them with an incentive to be as hardass as possible.”