Excessive Financial Force

by Dish Staff

Sarah Stillman spotlights the economics of police militarization:

[T]he economic arm of police militarization is often far less visible, and offender-funded justice is part of this sub-arsenal. The fears that [Jelani] Cobb and [Malik] Ahmed describe—court debts that lead to warrants and people who are afraid to leave their homes as a result—compound the force that can be wielded during raids or protests like those on the streets of Missouri. Debtors’ fears change their daily lives—can they go to the grocery story or drive a child to school without being detained? “It deters people who have legitimate problems from calling the police, and removes the police’s ability to do what they’re supposed to be doing—helping people in the community respond to emergencies,” [Equal Justice Under Law cofounder Alec] Karakatsanis said. It erodes the community’s trust in and coöperation with law enforcement.

Court fees are Ferguson’s second biggest source of municipal revenue. Thomas Harvey, whose “group represents low-income residents of St. Louis County in municipal court proceedings,” illustrates what this means for individuals:

We had one woman who was pulled over and charged with driving with a suspended license, failure to register and no proof of insurance. She was ticketed and assessed fines of $1,700. She couldn’t pay that; she’s a mother of three living in Section 8 housing. She didn’t go to court, a warrant was issued for her failure to appear and a few months later she got into a car accident that wasn’t her fault.

They saw that she had a warrant, and held her for two weeks and then took her in front of a judge. She told them I can’t pay this money, so they reduced it to $700. For her, that might as well have been $700,000. What ended up happening was her mom borrowed against her life insurance policy and her sister gave her half her bi-weekly paycheck. That was two weeks in jail for unpaid traffic tickets. And what the court learned from that, is that, if they send people to jail, they’ll probably make money.