Sep 15, 2014
The continuing anger and protests against the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson have pushed the Ferguson City Council to reduce somewhat the municipal court fees that had overwhelmed many of the city’s 21,135 residents. The council offered a limited amnesty for those facing insurmountable bills from the city.
City officials in Ferguson had come to depend increasingly on municipal court fines to pay for the functioning of the city. About 20 per cent of the city’s 12 million dollar budget now comes from fines, making it the second largest source of income for the city. To boost this income as much as possible, authorities had encouraged the police to write as many tickets and citations as possible – in effect, to bleed the working class and poor.
News reports have shown how the city has passed more and more ordinances that provide cops with any excuse to stop people and issue a ticket. Cops regularly ticket people for walking down the street, which they say is jay walking. There is even an ordinance to fine young people for wearing baggy pants. And cops are known to stop anyone driving an older car, just looking to find something to write a ticket for.
This is part of the situation that led to Michael Brown’s murder. A big part of the population in Ferguson, which is already squeezed for money, hasn’t been able to afford to pay these fines. But not paying a fine provided the courts the excuse to multiply the cost of the original ticket with more fees and fines on top of each other. And it gave the court the excuse to issue bench warrants for “failure to appear” in the court. This has become so widespread, on average last year, the court in Ferguson issued three bench warrants for every single household in the city.
Along with bench warrants comes the possibility of jail time. And because most other cities throughout the region are doing the same thing, ordinary people can have bench warrants in several places. So, after they are picked up, they serve time in not just one jail, but many jails, being passed from one to the next ... and then to the next.
In other words, ordinary people just trying to drive to work or going to the store are treated like criminals, often dragging down their entire family.
The people of Ferguson, responding to the murder of Michael Brown, shone a light on this filthy practice. To one degree or another, all over the country, municipalities are slashing corporate taxes and searching to make up the difference with oppressive fees and fines, which target the working class and poor.