Ferguson Judge’s Fix Barely Scratches the Surface
Aug. 26, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — At Fault Lines Links, there was a New York Times story about a judge in Ferguson, Missouri making changes to the town’s court system. Specifically, the Times article discussed how the city was withdrawing thousands of arrest warrants, all warrants prior to 2015. The mayor of the town explained,
The hope is we can go through and have people come, get right, get rid of the excess fines and fees, and have people deal with the original issue that brought them before the law.
It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s fixing a problem that shouldn’t exist in the first place. Even so, the solution is a day late and a dollar short.
Americans in general have been groomed to accept many troubling aspects of our justice system as normal, but few are worse than having supposedly neutral courts impose self-benefiting fines and fees. The idea that a judge can possibly be fair when deciding whether to take money from someone is ridiculous.
The money might not go to the judge personally, but no one ever won a judicial election on a platform of making sure the system does not make a profit. The people to whom appointed judges must answer hardly put the rights of defendants over the system’s financial well-being either. No one would put up with a corporation suing people in its own courts and then, upon winning, demanding a check made out to itself; yet few people seem to have a problem with governments everywhere doing just that.
Things get worse when someone can’t afford to pay a court fine or fee. It is very different from any other sort of financial obligation, because a court is not just any creditor. Courts often have enormous power to increase fees and fines for failures to pay or appear. More importantly, judges can issue arrest warrants when the people they forced to become debtors in the first place can’t pay them what they claimed they’re due. Judges can order jail in lieu of payment. It is coercive power of an enormous magnitude, and other debt collectors would probably give anything to have it. We do not give it to them for good reason.
In practice, the system is a trap that catches the same people over and over again. When someone can’t afford to comply with some licensing or registration requirement, or if they can’t make an equipment repair, they are cited and sent to court. A judge then demands money from them, which makes it harder for them to fix the thing that got them into the situation in the first place. It doesn’t solve anything. It only increases revenue for the system, and it does so on the backs of the people least equipped to pay. It’s an integral part of the vicious cycle that helps keep the poor poor, and local government everywhere afloat.
Quashing warrants and trying to work things out is a start, but it is certainly nothing revolutionary. The court isn’t dismissing all of the cases in question. It isn’t giving everyone a blank slate. Many people might come to court now that their warrants are quashed only to find that they are still required to pay fines and fees they can’t afford. For a defendant who was targeted in the first place because of his or her race and then cited for something he or she couldn’t have afforded to do anyway, simply quashing a warrant and offering reduced fees or some time-consuming alternatives to payment does nothing to change the fundamental unfairness of the situation.
It is also too soon to say if the judge’s decision is actually good for many of the defendants at all. The seemingly well-intentioned decision to quash the warrants might only result in more revenue for the city, or at the very least renewed contact with people who were previously staying beyond its reach. The article specifically notes that defendants may be put on installment plans or ordered to perform community service, usually doing something that benefits the government, or at least furthers its agenda. It also seems that only certain indigent individuals may actually have their fines commuted. In other words, it may still be a trap; just a kinder, gentler one that lets some people go.
It’s nice to see that Ferguson may be trying to undo some of its past mistakes, but the problem runs far too deep for a shallow solution to make a real difference. A real solution will take into account the fundamental flaws with the system that led to all of those cases, those fines and penalties, in the first place. Not just the warrants that eventually resulted.
Ferguson will not skip into anarchy if 10,000 previously ignored cases suddenly go away. That would be a real fresh start, and it would signify a genuine commitment to change.