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Economic harassment and the Ferguson crisis

Economics is the root cause of the Ferguson crisis

Scratch any social crisis, and you're likely to find economics not far below the surface. Via ArchCity Defenders, a St. Louis legal-aid nonprofit, we can see how this has worked to create the dismaying spectacle of the breakdown of justice in Ferguson. (H/t Alex Tabarrok, via Kevin Drum.)

According to the group's recent report on the municipal court system in St. Louis County, the Ferguson court is a "chronic offender" in legal and economic harassment of its residents. There's not much of a secret why: the municipality collects some $2.6 million a year in fines and court fees, typically from small-scale infractions like traffic violations. This is the second-largest source of income for that small, fiscally-strapped municipality.

For a low-income community--and for a black community subjected to the racial profiling, as the report documents--these fines can gather force like a boulder rolling downhill. 

And racial profiling appears to be the rule. In Ferguson, "86% of vehicle stops involved a black motorist, although blacks make up just 67% of the population," the report states. "After being stopped in Ferguson, blacks are almost twice as likely as whites to be searched (12.1% vs. 7.9%) and twice as likely to be arrested." But those searches result in the discovery of contraband at a much lower rate than searches of whites.

Once the process begins, the system begins to resemble the no-exit debtors' prisons of yore. "Clients reported being jailed for the inability to pay fines, losing jobs and housing as a result of the incarceration, being refused access to the Courts if they were with their children or other family members....

"By disproportionately stopping, charging, and fining the poor and minorities, by closing the Courts to the public, and by incarcerating people for the failure to pay fines, these policies unintentionally push the poor further into poverty, prevent the homeless from accessing the housing, treatment, and jobs they so desperately need to regain stability in their lives, and violate the Constitution." And they increase suspicion and disrespect for the system.

Tabarrok points to the report's observation that the Ferguson court processed the equivalent of three warrants and $312 in fines per household in 2013.

"You don't get $321 in fines and fees and 3 warrants per household from an about-average crime rate," he notes. "You get numbers like this from [B.S.] arrests for jaywalking" and what the report calls "low level harassment involving traffic stops, court appearances, high fines, and the threat of jail for failure to pay without a meaningful inquiry into whether an individual has the means to pay."

Why was Michael Brown originally stopped? Yes, for jaywalking.

(See for a view of this process from ArchCity's co-founder.)

Drum asks an important question about all this. "Why are police departments allowed to fund themselves with ticket revenue in the first place? Or red light camera revenue. Or civil asset forfeiture revenue. Or any other kind of revenue that provides them with an incentive to be as hardass as possible. Am I missing something when I think that this makes no sense at all?"

No, you're not. ArchCity's conclusion is stark: these practices "destroy the public's confidence in the justice system and its component parts, impose heavy burdens financially and otherwise on the most burdened subset of the population, and cost the municipalities exorbitant amounts of money and human capital." 

The harvest is on view, daily, in Ferguson.

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