The Dispossessed Deserve Better

Kalief Browder

Kalief Browder-Ebony photo credit

“The nature of the criminal justice system has changed. It is no longer primarily concerned with the prevention and punishment of crime,but rather with the management and control of the dispossessed.” From Michelle Alexander’s, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Mass incarceration is a system designed to imprison people based on racism and classism and being poor is a common denominator.

After Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, media attention highlighted a municipal court system that had a history and tradition of excessively ticketing those in the predominately black community. Some might argue that Michael Brown’s death and the municipal profiteering had little in common, that would be a naïve and reckless assumption.

The attention also drew the ire of state politicians in both parties. State Sen. Bob Dixon was a member of a bipartisan Missouri group of lawmakers who tried to address some of the systemic issues that came to light. Among the issues was the rate at which St. Louis County was ticketing poor minority motorists. It typically takes a long time for statewide policy decisions to be made but in this case, the legislature passed a bill limiting the percentage of traffic revenue cities could keep. House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) said at the time, “We ought to have been prioritizing this a long time ago. It’s not right to have a system in our state where we’ve got municipalities that are basically funding the basic operations of government through traffic fines.”

The U. S. Department of Justice’s report that focused on Ferguson also revealed that national statistics were trending on a similar practice as a revenue generator. If a community is preyed on in the streets and in the courts, it is no surprise that the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson was an incident waiting to happen.

Last week, Atlanta’s Creative Loafing featured a story Fines, Fees and Inequality by Tiffany Roberts that reflects a familiar refrain in other cities and states. A former Fulton County public defender and co-founder of Lawyers United for a New Atlanta wrote the story. The exceptionally data driven piece did not fail to highlight the disparity between race and class as a premise for a questionable public policy. Whether you agree with her conclusion, there is no debate about the trend of the indigent and poor who find themselves with limited legal options if faced with criminal allegations.

Recent changes by the California Judicial Council now allow drivers to appear in court first to challenge a fine before paying it. It was not unusual for a traffic ticket to cost a motorist $500 in a state that reported in 2013 16.6% of its residents lacked enough resources to meet their basic needs.

While traffic fees are just one way to disenfranchise those who can least afford it. The case of New York’s 22 year-old Kalief Browder whose charges were dismissed is another more horrifying example of what happens when defendants can’t pay. In his case the damage was fatal. Kalief committed suicide after spending over three years in Rikers Island. Browder’s family could not afford the $3,000 bail imposed based on an allegation that he stole a backpack. It has been reported and confirmed with video evidence that he was beaten by guards and inmates and he spent two years in solitary confinement. Because he was innocent, Kalief refused plea deals.

And while St. Louis area jurisdictions are paying closer attention to the inequality of traffic fines, a recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch story suggests that fines are being written for other offenses but target the same group.

Of course, we are not simplistically suggesting that criminals should not have their day in court to face allegations of wrongdoing. But the burden of a municipality’s budget whether Ferguson or any other city should not rest on the shoulders of those unable to avoid the persistent pursuit of an unjust policy.