Yesterday the Washington Post published an epic investigation of the municipal-fine system in outlying St. Louis County cities and towns like Ferguson. If that sounds boring—and I admit, as the person who wrote the preceding sentence, that it sounds boring—try this: In appalling detail, reporter Radley Balko makes a case that St. Louis County is home to a large-scale state-enforced shakedown racket that extorts black residents by using unjust imprisonment as a weapon.
Balko is a civil liberties advocate who's written for the libertarian publication Reason, so if you're inclined you can take his framing of the issues with a grain of salt. But the most stunning parts of his piece aren't anecdotes or rhetoric; they’re facts about a system that raises money for itself by deluging a largely-black population with fines and tickets for minor civic infractions, then punishes them again and again with arrests and imprisonment for not being able to navigate a convoluted judicial system. Here’s a quote (about drivers’ licenses) from the former president of the Missouri Municipal and Associate Circuit Judges’ Association:
“There are now 26 different ways you can lose your license in St. Louis County,” he says. “There used to be five. You can now lose your license for things that have nothing to do with driving. We definitely have a problem with over-criminalization.”
Beverly Hills, Missouri has a population of 571. Its City Hall and police station share a building with a pharmacy. Yet in 2013, the town handed out 3,250 traffic tickets, and issued another 1,085 citations for violations of non-traffic ordinances.
If you don't respond properly to a fine or ticket, you can be arrested:
As of June 30 of 2013, there were 23,457 arrest warrants pending in Pine Lawn Municipal Court, or about 7.3 per resident...Pine Lawn is far from the worst. The aforementioned town of Country Club Hills has over 33,000 outstanding arrest warrants, or an astonishing 26 per resident.
Twenty-six arrest warrants per resident! And the fragmented, hard-to-navigate court system has good reason to perpetuate itself:
According to a recent white paper published by the ArchCity Defenders, the chief prosecutor in Florissant Municipal Court makes $56,060 per year. It’s a position that requires him to work 12 court sessions per year, at about three hours per session. The Florissant prosecutor is Ronald Brockmeyer, who also has a criminal defense practice in St. Charles County, and who is also the chief municipal prosecutor for the towns of Vinita Park and Dellwood. He is also the judge—yes, the judge—in both Ferguson and Breckenridge Hills.
That salary for the chief prosecutor works out to about $1,500 an hour. (If you worked full-time at that rate you'd make more than $3 million in a year.)
If you're thinking—Well, why not just pay the fines?—there's more detail in the piece on why exactly that can be difficult. Balko also writes about the St. Louis County system's historical origins and ways its harms might be mitigated. (Apparently, increasing black political representation won't do the trick on its own; while many of the local institutions involved in the system are disproportionately more white than the populations they're serving, several municipalities with diverse representation have the same problems.) Read the whole piece here.