Some St. Louis County towns have found a way to boost local revenue — penalizing residents for petty offenses, especially ones that impact the poor, and raking in millions in revenue for local government.
Finances suggest that St. Louis suburb criminal justice systems have been exploiting residents, especially the poor. While Ferguson's economy has shrunk over the last decade, and its population has declined by 11 percent since 2010, fines collected by the county system surged 85 percent, hitting $2.6 million last year, according to the Quartz economics blog and Human Rights Watch.
Towns surrounding St. Louis County get 40 percent or more of their yearly revenue from these petty fines and fees that local lawyers have started calling "poverty violations." The majority are from traffic offenses, but also include fare-hopping on public transit, loud music, zoning violations for unkempt property, wearing "saggy pants," and open-ended offenses like "disturbing the peace" that give officers a lot of leeway in issuing violations, according to the Washington Post.
Low-income citizens have a hard time paying for petty violations, which then balloon with late fees, sometimes into thousands of dollars. When citizens fail to pay the fees or fail to show up in court because they don't have the funds, those violations turn into arrest warrants.
“These aren’t violent criminals,” Thomas Harvey a co-founder of St. Louis legal aid group ArchCity Defenders told the Post. “These are people who make the same mistakes you or I do." But when low-income citizens get hit with increasing fines, or can't make court dates because they can't take two or three days off work, they "just get sucked into this vortex of debt and despair," he says.
Nicole Bolden, 32, a single black mother of two who had an associates degree in medical assistance, was arrested last March in front of her two children and taken to jail because she had four warrants in St. Louis County for failure to show up in court. She hadn't appeared in court because she didn't have the money for the tickets — one for speeding, one for failure to wear a seat belt, and the others are "poverty violations": expired plates, expired registration, no proof of insurance.
She was taken to jail on the spot while her children stayed with another officer, who held them until Bolden's mother and sister could arrive, according to an account of her story in the Washington Post. She was held for bail at $1,700 — more money than friends and family could scrape up — and was imprisoned for weeks, during which time she missed a job interview and fell behind in her paralegal studies.
Michael-John Voss, co-founder of a legal aid group called ArchCity Defenders, eventually got her fine reduced to $700.
"She was crying as I explained the situation to her,” Voss told the Post. “So then I started to cry as I explained it her. One of the really frustrating things about what’s happening here is that this system is breaking good people. These are people just trying to get by, just trying to take care of their families. Bolden is a single black woman with four kids. She has several tattoos. It’s easy to see how cops might target her, or court officials might dismiss her."
Bolden's mother borrowed against a life insurance policy to post bond. “It doesn’t just affect you,” Bolden told the Post. “It affects your family. Your kids. Your friends. My mother is disabled. And she had to help me out."
Now Bolden is on a payment plan with the courts, but if she misses one, she could be issued a warrant all over again, and all of this affects her permanent record — which can impact ability to get jobs and loans.
Bolden's situation illustrates a widespread problem. According to Quartz and police records, Ferguson Municipal Court issued 24,532 warrants and heard 12,018 cases last year, which averages 1.5 cases and three warrants per household in Ferguson.
Police data also indicate that officers target black residents, though blacks make up two-thirds of Ferguson's population. Nine-tenths of vehicle stops involve black drivers, who are twice as likely to be searched and arrested. This is despite the fact that only 22 percent of black drivers are found to have contraband in searches, while white drivers are found to have contraband 34 percent of the time.
Quartz reports that a sampling of St. Louis towns rely on court-fine revenue, not just Ferguson, and cash-strapped cities around the country have adopted what Human Rights Watch calls dubious "offender-funded business models" in their report called "Profiting from Probation." This includes states like Pennsylvania where parole is denied to offenders who can't pay a $60 fee, and Virginia where drivers can have licenses suspended if they miss debt payments.