The Department of Justice confirmed yesterday what many of Ferguson’s residents have been saying, and protesting against, for months: the city racks up millions of dollars each year in fines and court fees by illegally harassing its black population. What the federal government did not say, however, is that the practice of criminalizing black people to raise money for police and court systems is not rare; local governments across the country have been doing it for years—ironically, to offset the spiraling costs of the incarceration boom of the past three decades.
In an afternoon press conference, Attorney General Eric Holder described Ferguson as “a community where local authorities consistently approached law enforcement not as a means for protecting public safety, but as a way to generate revenue.” Holder said the pressure to keep revenue flowing has generated constitutional violations at “nearly every level of Ferguson’s law enforcement system”—including inappropriate use of force.
“Once the system is primed for maximizing revenue—starting with fines and fine enforcement—the city relies on the police force to serve, essentially, as a collection agency for the municipal court rather than a law enforcement entity,” said Holder, later adding, “Our investigation showed that Ferguson police officers routinely violate the Fourth Amendment in stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause, and using unreasonable force against them.”
Holder’s conclusion, coming after an in-depth, six-month investigation in Ferguson, could have easily described many cities and local jurisdictions across the country.
As Nusrat Choudhury said in an ACLU statement back in January, “the vicious cycle of linking racial profiling and debtors prisons,” occurs nationally and “in the process, poor people—disproportionately people of color—and their families suffer from the collateral impacts of jailing on employment, and housing.”
In Louisiana and Washington State, for instance, those convicted of a crime are ordered to pay court and processing fees that can add up to hundreds or thousands of dollars. In Washington State, the minimum fees for a felony conviction add up to $800, and in 2004 they averaged nearly $1,400. Poor defendants often wind up indebted and put onto a payment plan where interest accrues. The inability to pay can easily land them back in prison.
As was the case for Kevin Thompson, a black resident of Dekalb County, Georgia. He was put on probation for thirty days, during which he had to pay off more than $800 in fines related to traffic infractions. He describes his experience in an ACLU blog post announcing his involvement in a lawsuit to sue the city. When he was unable to pay in that time frame, he was sentenced to jail time for “violating probation.” The effect on Thompson lasted longer than the jail sentence: “Even after I was released, I felt scared that police might arrest me and jail me again for no good reason,” he stated. “After all, DeKalb County and [the probation company] essentially jailed me for being poor.”