Ferguson court system makes huge profit off poor black residents

Ferguson City Hall and Municipal Court.
Ferguson City Hall and municipal court.

As disturbances continue in Ferguson, Missouri, new information has come out regarding what it is like to live in the city. The ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit lawyers group, did a special study on Ferguson and other surrounding communities. What the study reveals is shocking and goes to the root cause of the disturbances other than the shooting of Michael Brown.

The study shows that even though Ferguson is almost 70 percent black with an estimated population of 21,000, the police force only has three officers who are black out of 53. In addition to this disparity in hiring practices, the way law enforcement polices the community is a serious issue. While whites compromise 29 percent of the population and just 12.7 percent of vehicle stops in Ferguson, blacks are almost twice as likely as whites to be searched and twice as likely to be arrested. In 2013 alone, the city of Ferguson earned $2,635,40o in municipal court fines. This amount makes municipal court fines the second highest revenue producer for the city.

The Ferguson Municipal Court operated 36, three-hour court sessions in 2013 and handled 12,108 cases and 24,532 warrants. That means that on average there are 1.5 cases in three warrents per Ferguson household. Adding to the aggravation of the court is the fact that the court regularly closes its doors soon after opening.  The municipal court routinely starts sessions 30 minutes before the appointed time and locks the doors five minutes after the appointed time.  That means if you are a few minutes late, you can be fined for non-appearance. There were numerous cases in which poor defendants were required to pay fines more than three times their monthly income. The result meant that people would sink further into poverty or be given jail time over these high fines.

The report goes on to state “Three courts, Bel-Ridge, Florissant, and Ferguson, were chronic offenders and serve as prime examples of how these practices violate fundamental rights of the poor, undermine public confidence in the judicial system, and create inefficiencies. For many of the poorest citizens of the region, the municipal courts and police departments inflict a kind of low level harassment involving traffic stops, court appearances, high fines, and the threat of jail for failure to pay without a meaningful inquiry into whether an individual has the means to pay,”

The report gives further credence to the fact that the disturbances in Ferguson are not solely of a racial nature. The disturbances are really part of a societal issue dealing with law enforcement, income inequality, and equal protection under the law.

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