One moment, we see a young man with a welt from a rubber bullet between his eyes; the next, three officers with big guns are charging at another black man who has his hands up. On Thursday, Jelani Cobb filed a powerful account from the sidewalks and homes of Ferguson. Cobb asks about “the intertwined economic and law-enforcement issues underlying the protests,” including, for instance, the court fees that many people in Ferguson face, which often begin with minor infractions and eventually become “their own, escalating, violations.” “We have people who have warrants because of traffic tickets and are effectively imprisoned in their homes,” Malik Ahmed, the C.E.O. of an organization called Better Family Life, told Cobb. “They can’t go outside because they’ll be arrested. In some cases, people actually have jobs but decide that the threat of arrest makes it not worth trying to commute outside their neighborhood.”
The crisis of criminal-justice debt is just one of the many tributaries feeding the river of deep rage in Ferguson. But it’s an important one—both because it’s so ubiquitous and because it’s easily overlooked in the spectacular shadow of tanks and turrets. Earlier this year, I spent six months reporting on the rise of profiteering in American courts, which happens by way of the proliferation of fees and fines for very minor offenses—part of a growing movement toward what’s known as offender-funded justice. Private companies play an aggressive role in collecting these fees in certain states. (Often, this tactic is aimed at the poor with unpaid traffic tickets.) The reports from Ferguson raise questions about how militarization and economic coercion feed a shared anger.
Missouri was one of the first states to allow private probation companies, in the late nineteen-eighties, and it has since followed the national trend of allowing court fees and fines to mount rapidly. Now, across much of America, what starts as a simple speeding ticket can, if you’re too poor to pay, mushroom into an insurmountable debt, padded by probation fees and, if you don’t appear in court, by warrant fees. (Often, poverty means transience—not everyone who is sent a court summons receives it.) “Across the country, impoverished people are routinely jailed for court costs they’re unable to pay,” Alec Karakatsanis, a cofounder of Equal Justice Under Law, a nonprofit civil-rights organization that has begun challenging this practice in municipal courts, said. These kinds of fines snowball when defendants’ cases are turned over to for-profit probation companies for collection, since the companies charge their own “supervision” fees. What happens when people fall behind on their payments? Often, police show up at their doorsteps and take them to jail. (» more)