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Forget, for a moment, the controversy around the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Forget the demonstrations, the looting, the anger and all the attempts by various factions of those concerned with civil rights, including leaders, right wing commentators, the news media and politicians, to use Ferguson as a sounding board for their own purposes. Something is very wrong in Ferguson, Missouri, beyond all of these factors.

The New York Times has published a chart, put together with the help of a law school professor in Missouri, that shows the municipal courts in Ferguson issued 1,500 arrest warrants in 2013 for every 1,000 residents of the city. Thats right, an average of 1.5 arrest warrants per person. These warrants are issued when people fail to pay fines for traffic violations or other misdemeanor crimes, like shoplifting. A more normal rate would be a few hundred warrants, or even a few dozen, per 1,000 population.

Based on this issuance of warrants, the entire population of Ferguson was wanted for arrest. (They werent, of course, because some people obviously had multiple warrants.) Even if 1/4 or 1/3 of the population was under warrant, it is a fairly astounding matter to  consider. How could this be? A detailed and careful investigation would be necessary to come up with a full answer, but one possibility would be that warrants are being issued excessively and not served. Are too many fines being placed on citizens? Are the fines so high that the population cant reasonably expect to pay them? Are fines and warrants being used as a means of keeping the minority population in line and under  control? Are excessive fines being used as a primary means to fund the local government, including the police? (The last question could be the most likely answer: if warrants are issued indiscriminately, as are fines which lead to the warrants.)

Something is terribly wrong and it could underlie the explosive reaction against the police that developed following the killing of Michael Brown.Keep in mind the warrants to population figures ARE FOR ONE YEAR, 2013. How can the courts issue so many warrants in a single year and not target almost everyone in the town? The statistics indicate a deep and serious problem. (Some would be issued for people from out of Ferguson, of course.) The volume of warrants is an indication that something is badly out of balance, either in crime or the issuance of fines which result in warrants and the problem in the community will not be addressed fully until the questions are answered.

It could be, in part, that the nation has been debating the wrong issue (which is not to say that police shooting unarmed, young black men is not a problem worthy of discussion, debate and resolution). It could be that the issue in Ferguson, Missouri, is one of police harassment so intense that people there cant live normal, untroubled lives. If that is the case, as it appears, who wouldnt be angry? It looks like the police and the courts are riding the backs of citizens as the old saying goes, like a rented mule.

Doug Terry, 8.25.14

LINK to the Times story

Note: the chart on arrest warrants in Ferguson is part of a story about the officer who shot Michael Brown. Scroll down for the chart. The above link is a free link, no sub required.

In the NY Times article:

Data on municipal courts across Missouri in 2013, gathered by a nonprofit group, ArchCity Defenders, as well as The New York Times, show that relative to the size of the city, Ferguson had the highest rate of warrants issued in the state among cities larger than  5,000 people, as well as some of the highest rates of fines collected and nontraffic violation cases filed.

FROM NATION OF CHANGE.ORG

Peter Coy reports for Bloomberg Businessweek that earlier this year, legal aid firm called ArchCity Defenders prepared a white paper that accused several municipalities in St. Louis County of stopping black drivers disproportionately for traffic violations, fining them in court sessions that were closed to the public, and jailing them when they were unable to pay. The report found that poorer drivers, mostly black, who cant afford lawyers, often find themselves caught in a downward spiral. They get points on their licenses, they cant afford their fines, theyre jailed, they lose their jobs, they drive with suspended licenses and get into deeper trouble. The recent unrest in Ferguson is taking place in a society that plainly isnt working, Coy writes.

At Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok calls the system described in the report a modern-day debtors prison. At the  LA Times, Michael Hiltzik notes that before being shot, Michael Brown was, ostensibly, stopped for the most minor of offenses: jaywalking.

TerryReport comment:

If the police and local authorities in the St. Louis area are using fines as a means to keep black people in jail, it would be a similar tactic to one used against blacks in the south in the post-Civil War period, after 1865,  when ex-slaves were arrested for minor crimes, put in prisons and then had their labor rented out to businesses that paid low amounts, not to the prisoners, but to the operators of the county jails, usually the local sheriff. In this way, freed blacks were re-enslaved across the south for many decades and the local sheriff had a lot of cash coming his way. To keep a steady supply of labor, it was necessary to arrest more blacks on minor or trumped up charges and make sure they stayed in prison. This highly corrupt system was not ended in many places until well into the 20th century.

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