Five years after the death of Michael Brown in the St. Louis, Missouri, suburb of Ferguson, Americans are still divided over whether his death at the hands of a white police officer was justified.
Even among the staunchest critics of the high-profile shooting of the 18-year-old unarmed black man, many believe the incident and its aftermath have brought attention — and in some cases reform — to a long-standing criminal justice problem: ballooning fees and fines from traffic stops and other minor violations that can turn poor people into criminals.
“What I’d say is that out of tragedy comes opportunity,” said Wesley Bell, a former activist and Ferguson City Council member who is now St. Louis County’s chief prosecutor. “In Ferguson, when you do something negative or positive, it registers, sometimes locally, but oftentimes nationally. And I think that’s an opportunity to implement changes and reform that can reverberate across the nation.”
In the years since Brown’s death, a growing number of cities and states have moved to rein in all manner of punitive measures — from exorbitant penalties to the suspension of driver’s licenses — that critics say can lead to a perpetual cycle of crime and punishment. While far from universally embraced, reform is happening in key regions.
In 2015, Missouri capped the share of revenue that municipalities could raise from fines and fees at 20%, taking away incentives for cities such as Ferguson to police for profit.
In 2017, Texas passed a law requiring judges in fine-only cases to assess an offender’s ability to pay before imposing or waiving a fine.
In 2018, California, which generates nearly $500 million a year from penalties, became the first state to eliminate all fines and fees imposed on juvenile offenders or their parents, followed by Nevada this year.
“We’ve seen reform,” said Lisa Foster, a retired California judge who is now co-director of the Fines & Fees Justice Center in Washington. “It’s nowhere near enough, but we’re making progress.”
‘Sources of revenue’
A 2015 U.S. Justice Department report found that Ferguson city officials pressured the then mostly white police department to focus more on generating revenue than protecting the public. As a result, police officers viewed the city’s predominantly black residents “less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue,” the report said.
As in many other U.S. cities, the fines and attendant court fees imposed by the Ferguson municipal court hit people who could least afford them the hardest. Failure to pay often resulted in jail time.
In one case, an African-American woman received a $151 ticket in 2007 for parking illegally — a fine that increased with penalties for late payment and other charges. By 2014, she had paid $550, been arrested twice and spent six days in jail for the same violation. And she still owed the city $541.
In other cases, “what should have been a couple of hundred dollars’ worth of fees is sometimes $1,000,” said Bell, who in 2018 became St. Louis County’s first African-American prosecuting attorney.
In 2014, Ferguson received more than 16% of its revenue from fines and fees. But it wasn’t the worst offender in the county of 88 municipalities. Nearby Saint Ann claimed that top distinction, receiving 30.4% of its revenue from fines and fees in 2012 and exceeding a state cap of 30%, according to a report by the Civil Rights Commission.
To discourage excess in fines and fees, Missouri lawmakers lowered the cap to 20% in 2015. Anything above that would be turned over to the state. The effect was widely felt. In Ferguson, revenue from fines has dropped by 90%.
The Justice Department’s denunciation of Ferguson’s predatory policing practices as “unconstitutional” reverberated across the country, Foster said.
“When people read [the report] and realized the extent of the problem in Ferguson, [they] began to look elsewhere in the country to see: ‘Was this happening in our community as well?’ ” Foster said. “And the answer all over the country was ‘Yes.’ ”
To be sure, most U.S. cities don’t rely on fines as a major source of revenue. But a 2012 study by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that 38 cities, including six in Missouri, received 10% or more of their revenue from fines and fees. Ferguson was No. 18 on the list.
According to Foster, the explosion of penalties grew out of the tough-on-crime policies of the 1980s that led to mass incarceration in the United States, making it the largest jailer in the world.
“It costs money to lock up lots of people, but there are other costs, as well. You need more judges. You need more prosecutors. You need more courtrooms. You need more public defenders, probation officers,” Foster said.
Meanwhile, legislators looking to fund more jails and judges were faced with another reality sweeping the country: growing anti-tax sentiment.
“In state legislatures, they didn’t want to raise taxes to pay for the cost of the justice system, so they looked to the system itself, and the people caught in the system to pay those costs,” Foster said.
In Los Angeles County, for example, families were charged $23.63 a day for a dependent in a juvenile detention center, and $11.94 a day for a dependent in a probation camp. The county banned the practice in 2009.
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, 47 states and several cities raised fines and fees to boost their revenue. But then the Justice Department’s subsequent probe of the Ferguson Police Department and municipal court — and a plethora of independent studies — showed how the system was rigged against poor African-Americans.
WATCH: Five Years After Ferguson, States Rein in Punishment of the Poor
Five Years After Ferguson, States Rein in Punishment of the Poor video player.
A 2019 study by the Stanford Computational Policy Lab showed that in nearly 100 million traffic stops, black drivers were stopped more often than white drivers, while a study of Alabama residents who owed fines found that 38% committed at least one crime to pay off their court debt.
With lawmakers reluctant to raise taxes, rolling back fines has not come easily. But increasingly, judges have stopped jailing offenders for unpaid fines, while states have moved to end driver’s license suspension, another punitive measure designed to compel payment.
In the last two years, six states — California, Mississippi, Montana, Idaho, Virginia and Texas — and the District of Columbia have stopped suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fines. In September, nearly 1 million Texans will get back their driver’s licenses thanks to the new law.
This year, New York became the first U.S. city to offer free phone calls for people incarcerated in city jails. It used to charge 50 cents for the first minute and 5 cents for each additional minute. In other cities, a jailhouse phone call can cost more than $1 a minute.
“I think that when the history books are written and we truly understand the legacy of what’s happening now,” Bell said, it will be clear that the changes “started five years ago. I think St. Louis County residents should be proud of the fact that impetus for change, many would argue, started right here.”
There is more work to do, Bell said. “And I’ll even add, this work will never be done.”