Cross-posted on Equal Voice
In March, the Justice Department released a shocking report about the Ferguson Police Department and criminal justice system.
The report found repeated violations of constitutional rights, including stopping and handcuffing people without probable cause, using stun guns without provocation, frequent racial slurs and a court system that disproportionately imposes fees, fines and imprisonment for debt on people of color.
According to the report, court fines are a large source of Ferguson’s revenue. In fact, emails showed city officials pushed for more tickets and fines. These fines and fees have serious consequences for people.
“Poor, mostly African-American residents described being trapped in the court system for years as they are repeatedly jailed,” one report said, “even when trying to make payments.”
Fines and fees create an overwhelming challenge to those who cannot afford them. Non-payment creates criminal justice debt that follows individuals and seriously limits economic opportunity. Debt enforcement leads to bad credit, which can prevent an individual’s ability to secure housing.
It can result in suspension of a driving license, which impedes someone’s ability to secure a job and lead a normal life. Fees also prolong entanglement in the criminal justice system, as people are arrested and jailed as punishment for not being able to pay.
Ferguson residents are not alone. Most states charge inmates for their jail stay, electronic monitoring, probation or supervision and public defense. Not only are those entangled in the system facing the potential loss of their freedom, they are increasingly expected to foot the bill for the process. Failure to pay these fines perpetuates a cycle of poverty and incarceration that worsen the country’s mass incarceration problem.
Despite the fact that mass incarceration has little to no effect on reducing crime, the U.S. still spends tens of billions of dollars a year on our prison system — $80 billion in 2010 alone — not to mention the costs to affected individuals and communities. An arrest or night in jail can cause one to miss work and lead to loss of employment.
Outstanding warrants for unpaid traffic tickets show up on background checks and hold people back from getting a job, paying the fine itself and moving on with their lives.
In the long term, a criminal record reduces chances of finding work and causes a person’s wages to fall. Americans who have cycled through the system and “paid their debt” to society face harsh job markets. Families with loved ones in prison are also affected.
One in nine Black children has a parent in prison, leading to a generation of Black children disproportionately bearing the effects of parental incarceration. In fact, one in 28 children has an incarcerated parent, almost one child in every classroom in America.
But this is where concerned people can make a difference. Grassroots movements drive the heart of the solutions. Groups of engaged and motivated people can rally behind a cause and motivate lawmakers to actually pass reforms that change the status quo.
It is time to get involved or to do so in new ways. Find out the positions of your local officials on criminal justice reform. Support funding for education and, in particular, funding to combat inequality. We know that graduating from high school significantly reduces the likelihood of incarceration.
Studies show that African-American men who do not finish high school are more likely than not to spend time incarcerated. And most importantly, spread the knowledge. Read about and discuss racial bias in the criminal justice system. Get involved to reduce our incarcerated population.
Activists have had an incredible impact in pushing states to reduce mass incarceration. For example, a grassroots campaign in California passed Proposition 47, which reclassified some minor felonies to misdemeanors, reducing and eliminating prison time for low-level offenders.
In New York state, activists are waging a campaign to raise the age of criminal responsibility, so that 16 and 17 year olds will no longer be tried as adults.
In response to the non-indictments of two White police officers – Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson and New York Police Department’s Daniel Pantaleo – people took to the streets to express their concern with the status quo. The #BlackLivesMatter movement mobilized thousands in cities across the country in a months-long dissent to demand accountability and fairness in the U.S. justice system.
We’re entering a new age in which criminal justice reform is one of the major political issues at the federal, state and local levels of government. Ferguson, a symbol of so much that is wrong with the relationship between criminal justice policy and communities, also provides reasons for hope. Increased voter turnout there was integral to the election of two Black representatives to the Ferguson City Council.
But the desire for change does not stop at getting out the vote. There is also broad support in St. Louis County for a newly-created partnership to examine police-community relations with the goal to systematically improve them. Better Together, a St. Louis-based grassroots project, and the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a national police research organization, held popular community forums to hear opinions and analyze data to develop a more ideal policing strategy for St. Louis.
In Ferguson, and in communities across the country, people can help increase momentum for criminal justice reform. Charging excessive fines to fund a governing structure that exacerbates economic inequality is not the answer. Find out what you can do to help your state reduce mass incarceration.