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Good Old Days Of Debtors Prison Making A Comeback In Ferguson, MO
The city of Ferguson, Missouri, sure seems to have a problem with black people, especially when it comes to driving. Which is why the Justice Department is investigating the police department. One big data point: the disparity between traffic citations for black and white drivers. Blacks get ticketed like crazy, and as John Oliver said, white drivers would have to be "snorting cocaine directly off your dashboard" to get stopped by cops.
So it's not a surprise that a group of civil rights attorneys is suing Ferguson and the nearby town of Jennings over their practice of jailing people over unpaid traffic violations. The attorneys are calling it a modern form of "debtors prisons." Who ever would have expected such a thing in Ferguson, where the city fathers keep assuring anyone with a microphone that the city has no racial issues at all?
The lawsuit, filed Sunday night on the eve of the six-month anniversary of the police shooting of Michael Brown, alleges that the city violates the Constitution by jailing people without adequately considering whether they were indigent and, as a result, unable to pay.
The suit is filed on behalf of 11 plaintiffs who say they were too poor to pay but were then jailed -- sometimes for two weeks or more.
Turns out that Ferguson is really big on traffic tickets. In 2013, the city collected some $2.6 million in court fees and fines, mostly from traffic and other low-level offenses. Those pay pretty well; they accounted for about 21 percent of the city's annual budget and were Ferguson's second-largest source of income. And Ferguson issues a lot of tickets. With a population of just 21,000, they managed to issue 33,000 arrest warrants on traffic offenses, though many of them were for out-of-towners.
When people fail to pay traffic fines, they get one chance in court to arrange a payment plan. If they don't show up for that hearing or fall behind on the payments, off to jail they go, which you might suppose also costs something, no? And then the unpaid fines start racking up penalties and additional offenses, like license suspensions, which leave people unable to drive to work, and then even more unable to pay. (Surely they can take Ferguson's highly developed mass transit system, though, right?)
NPR details several of the plaintiffs' stories, like this account from Tonya DeBarry, whose minor traffic violations eventually snowballed and made her some kind of career criminal:
Just over a year ago, Tonya DeBerry was driving her 4-year-old grandson in her daughter-in-law's car. A St. Louis County police officer saw that the license plates were expired and pulled her over. He ran a background check and saw an arrest warrant for multiple unpaid traffic tickets in Ferguson. Among those old violations were tickets for driving with a suspended license — lost for earlier unpaid tickets — and driving with no registration, insurance or proof of inspection.
DeBerry was arrested and handcuffed in front of her grandson. After someone came to pick up the boy, she was taken to jail.
"Just traffic tickets. No criminal act. Nothing," says DeBerry, 52, who doesn't work and depends on a disability check and food stamps. "If you have the money, you would never go through that type of situation. If you don't have the money, it's jail, jail."
She says the jail cell was moldy and dirty. "There was blood on the walls where people cut themselves and wiped the blood."
She spent two nights in a Ferguson jail in January 2014, until her daughter arrived with $300 borrowed from a neighbor to pay her bond. She was then transported to Jennings, Mo. — which is also being sued in a companion lawsuit — where there were more unpaid traffic tickets.
DeBerry still owes a few thousand dollars on those unpaid traffic tickets. She says she worries that she could be picked up again and go back to jail, so she's careful about where and when she drives.
We can already predict Fox News will suggest a very simple answer for all this: Black people should stop driving like maniacs, or at least never get behind the wheel without having saved up several hundred dollars for fines. It's utterly unthinkable that the Ferguson and Jennings police are targeting black drivers, isn't it?
Just to make the whole thing even more infuriating, the lawsuit also notes that judges routinely jail people for nonpayment of fines despite laws prohibiting jailing people for the inability to pay:
"[Judges] routinely fail to make the inquiry into someone's ability to pay, even when it's required by law," says attorney Thomas Harvey, a co-founder of ArchCity Defenders, which provides legal services to the homeless and indigent. "At the very moment anyone says, 'I can't afford this. I'm on Section 8. I have lived in a homeless shelter,' that is raising the issue of indigency before the court, and it's required at that moment for the court to continue that inquiry and not continue to incarcerate someone if they've raised that issue of indigency."
Yeah, sure, that may be a law, but how's Ferguson supposed to pay for all those fancy new police body cams if they can't squeeze the city's black residents for every last cent? It's for their own good, after all.
Here's the full NPR story; prepare to rage a bit as you listen.
Hope you didn't swear too much during that -- your Smart TV may have been listening, and you don't want it to think ill of you.
[ NPR ]