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Report on Ferguson Exposes Broader Effort to Reform Municipal Courts

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Among the raft of civil rights violations Department of Justice investigators found in Ferguson, Missouri was a municipal court system that allegedly emphasized revenue over public safety, leading to routine breaches of citizens' constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection under the law.

But it's not just Ferguson.

Civil rights advocates have been trying to raise awareness of similar problems in municipal courts across the country.

"I think the lesson to take away from what we see in Ferguson is that Ferguson helped us shed light on this broader problem," said Alec Karakatsanis, a civil rights lawyer who runs a non-profit clinic in Washington D.C. called Equal Justice Under Law.

"All over the country we’re seeing a rise in efforts to fund local municipal legal systems on the backs of the very poor, as revenue generators rather than dispensers of justice," he said. "Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, California, you name it, we’re seeing it."

"If you're poor and black and standing in front of court saying, 'I can't afford this,' I think the court is less likely to listen to you'"

Most of these fights are being waged on a local basis, without the attention that Ferguson or the rest of the St. Louis region attracted after the Aug. 9, 2014 killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a white police officer, Darren Wilson. Brown's death triggered a wave of rioting and unrest, and prompted a national discussion of the underlying issues of race and justice.

That examination led to problems in the city's municipal court, where the Justice Department found a heavy reliance on minor offenses like traffic violations, parking infractions, jaywalking and "failure to comply." The burden fell disproportionately on the poor, who fell into crippling debt or ended up in jail, investigators found. Blacks in particular were far more likely to be hit with these petty offenses.

Similar situations, and worse, occur in many other small towns across St. Louis County, most of whom operate their own municipal courts, according to studies by legal experts and civil rights advocates.

The local nonprofit group Arch City Defenders released a report linking tensions between police and the public to the fee-collection policies in the area's patchwork of local courts. Last month, Arch City Defenders, along with Equal Justice Under Law, and St. Louis University Law School filed federal lawsuits against Ferguson and the nearby town of Jennings on behalf of 15 citizens who charged the towns with creating modern-day debtors' prisons.

"If you're poor and black and standing in front of court saying, 'I can't afford this,' I think the court is less likely to listen to you,'" said Tom Harvey, a lawyer who represents one of the lawsuit's plaintiffs, 23-year-old Allison Nelson.

That's the same accusation that the American Civil Liberties Union has been leveling against state and local courts that have turned to aggressive fee collections as a way to fund operations without burdening taxpayers. These strategies, the organization says, violate the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which promises due process and equal protection.

"All over the country we’re seeing a rise in efforts to fund local municipal legal systems on the backs of the very poor, as revenue generators rather than dispensers of justice. Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, California, you name it, we’re seeing it."

The ACLU has campaigned against courts in Michigan, Ohio, Washington, Colorado, New Hampshire and Georgia.

Many of those courts have dug in their heels and defended the policies as an important tool to discourage law breaking. But there are also some communities who've begun to embrace reforms. That includes Ferguson, which is exploring changes along with the rest of St. Louis County.

In that way, Karakatsanis said, Ferguson may provide be the boost reform advocates need to begin a nationwide effort.

"The only way we’re going to have a movement that alters what we're doing is for people to understand the costs," he said.

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Image: emonstrators march in protest over the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson
Demonstrators march in protest over the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 18. The governor of the central US state of Missouri lifted a curfew in a St Louis suburb that has seen a week of racial unrest, after he ordered National Guard soldiers to deploy to help restore order. Nixon ordered the deployment of the National Guard early Monday after violence flared during the second night of a curfew in Ferguson. The unrest followed the 09 August fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by a police officer.LARRY W. SMITH / EPA
— with Ron Allen

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