Charles Dickens became famous writing novels about the social evils of 19th Century London. One such evil was the debtor prison from which poor Londoners could never escape the consequences of their poverty. Now we find that this Dickensian script is being played out in of all places, Ferguson, Missouri.
Here’s how it works. Cash-strapped Missouri municipalities like Ferguson are in need of money. They decide to raise the money they need by issuing more traffic tickets, and since most citizens of Ferguson are African American, they are the drivers who are cited. Defendants are given a court date. If they can’t pay, a new court date is set. But many defendants can’t pay the fines so they don’t appear in court out of fear they will be jailed. So judges issues arrest warrants for their failure to appear. The defendants (really debtors) are arrested and jailed. The final irony is that the municipality does not get its money; instead it provides room and board for the defendants. It works out even worse for the defendants. They lose their jobs and find themselves incarcerated in overcrowded jails without any clear path back to a normal life.
It’s Dickens all over again. And it’s not only Missouri. The Vera Institute tells us that jails all over America are home to citizens whose greatest crime was the inability to pay the fine for a minor traffic offense. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/11/us/jails-have-become-warehouses-for-the-poor-ill-and-addicted-a-report-says.html?ref=us&_r=0
The Arch City Defenders is not a motorcycle gang. It’s a group of idealistic young lawyers who represent poor clients in the St. Louis area. They recently, with the participation of the Equal Justice Foundation and the St. Louis University Law School, filed a lawsuit challenging the practices described above.
We should remember that the facts described above are alleged, not yet proved. And there’s a big difference between claiming an injury and persuading a court to give a remedy for it. Still there’s nothing in the facts alleged that seems especially improbable. In fact it seems quite likely to occur when a bureaucratic legal system interacts with people with little ready cash.
In any case that’s why we have courts. Citizens have the opportunity with the aid of discovery procedures to prove their claims to be true. And even a case that fails in the end may provide indirect social benefits. It may uncover facts that prove insufficient in court but will have success in the political arena.
The filing of a lawsuit is itself a newsworthy fact that can act as a catalyst to action by political officials. We may be seeing just that happening in Missouri where legislation is being considered limiting the percentage of their revenues that municipalities receive from traffic violation revenues.
And it’s important to also note that this lawsuit not only responds to the immediate problems of the plaintiffs, but also treats the larger problem of relations between police and African Americans so tragically played out in Ferguson. After all, it is the police who hand out the tickets that so disrupt African American lives.
Everyone complains about race problems in America, but the Arch City Defenders did something about it.
Addendum 3/5/15– Here is a NYT article summarizing a Justice Dept. report substantiating many of the law suit’s allegations.