It’s Not Just Ferguson: One Year Later, It’s Time to Consolidate the Courts

Last Sunday, we marked one year since the killing of Mike Brown.  A year ago, like many in the region, those of us at ArchCity Defenders were not quite sure how to respond.  Unfortunately, prior to the sustained efforts of protesters, organizers, and activists over this past year, the death of an unarmed Black man at the hands of the police barely merited a headline in America.  For many in the region, Mike Brown’s death was a sad but not unusual occurrence.

As the protests built momentum, they called attention to some of the underlying factors contributing to their sustainability.  First and foremost, young Black women and men were in the streets for Mike Brown.  But they weren’t only talking about his killing.  They were talking about a United States and St. Louis culture that devalues Black life.  Whether it’s illustrated by news of the Normandy School District, housing values in North County, unemployment, unequal access to health care and healthy food, or disparate treatment in the legal system, Black lives mattered less.

One area talked about in seemingly every other interview was racial profiling and profit driven courts.  ArchCity Defenders had heard this for years from its clients, the homeless, who could not gain access to housing, jobs or treatment due to warrants in municipal courts for unpaid fines.  They had been jailed and held for days or weeks without seeing a judge.  Every day they were in that jail for the failure to pay fines stemming from a municipal ordinance violation, they were told they could buy their freedom for cash.  As humiliating as it was to be locked up, it was worse to know it was solely because they were Black and poor.

ArchCity Defenders had been working on a paper detailing these abuses since 2012 when Professor Eric Miller, Michael-John Voss and I took a trip to the South to meet with representatives at the Southern Poverty Law Center, Alabama Appleseed, the Southern Center for Human Rights and Georgia Justice Project.  During this road trip to visit the “Fortune 500” of Poverty Law, our eyes were opened to just how perverse our municipal court system was.  Time after time, these civil rights heroes who made their living suing the KKK out of business in Alabama, forcing the creation of a public defender system in Georgia, and modeling holistic defense in Atlanta told us that they had never seen anything like what we described going on in St. Louis County.

“That’s worse than Alabama” gave way to “That’s worse than Georgia” and ended with “If you sat down to intentionally  design a system to oppress Black people, this is what you would do.”

At the time, ArchCity Defenders was not much more than MJ, John, me and a few volunteers.  We didn’t have the capacity to represent everyone of the 1000s of people we saw standing outside municipal court in 97 degree summers and 15 degree winters who were by definition poor.  When people ask how I know the people standing outside the court are poor, I realize that they’ve never had a ticket in St. Louis.  In our region, you can hire a lawyer for $40 to take care of your speeding ticket and on the high end, it’s $100.  If you can’t come up with $40 to avoid going to municipal court, I don’t need much economic analysis to know you are poor.  The process of waiting outside for sometimes hours in the heat and cold only to be called before a judge who barely listens to you or treats you like a human being before fining you an amount you absolutely cannot afford is an essential part of the punishment in these courts.

Realizing our weaknesses, we decided to take a radical step:  listen to what poor people and Black people had been telling us for years.  These tickets aren’t about public safety, they’re about money.  And we’re getting stopped, harassed, and exploited because we’re Black.  And if we’re Black and poor, nobody will listen to what we have to say.

In early 2013, we started a court watching program with Saint Louis University School of Law and asked students to observe the proceedings in as many courts as they could over the course of a semester.  When the students were unconstitutionally prohibited from entering court, we added a section where they just asked people standing outside if they would say what brought them there that night.

Because we are so small, the project sat on the shelf for most of 2013 but in the summer of 2014 I had a team of interns from Washington University.  These amazing undergrads Sophia Keskey, Sean Janda, and Megan Conn worked with me all summer putting it together.

We started with the stories of people whose lived experience it was to be harassed on a daily basis as they drove to school, work, the hospital and the gym just trying to live their lives.  Their words, not ours.  In support of their analysis, we plugged in publicly available data from the Attorney General’s website on racial disparity in traffic stops as well as budget information available on the website of virtually every town in this region.  To that, we added a little information about how the system worked for rich people and a discussion of how prosecutors and judges work in multiple jurisdictions giving at least the impression of a conflict of interest.

The paper was ready to go on July 31, 2014; I just needed to add an introduction. I got off a plane on August 10, 2014 to see people in the streets protesting the killing of Mike Brown.  Over the next 4 days, I saw media asking why there was such a strong reaction to the death of Mike Brown and grasping at straws to provide context to what was going on.  I added the introduction, put the paper out on our website and tweeted it to journalists who picked it up and ran with it.  Most notably, Radley Balko came to St. Louis and spent three days with me and Javad traveling to court, meeting our clients, and getting a real feel for what was going on which resulted in an epic tome of a blog post that captures the injustice of this system as well as anything I have seen.

Since that time, our region has taken steps towards reform.  The DOJ confirmed our findings about Ferguson which simply confirmed what Black people and poor people have known for years:  there is a racially discriminatory and profit-driven approach to law enforcement made possible only by the collaborative efforts of local government, police, and courts.  But we’re not there yet.  The best and most fair way to address the past and potential future wrongs in these courts and ensure their ongoing compliance with settlement agreements, legislation, and the Constitution is to fundamentally and meaningfully transform them.  To make access to the courts as open and fair as possible and change the lives of the people hurt the most by these practices, we must abolish the current system and replace it with a regional court system.

Towards that end, we have written a new report called “It’s Not Just Ferguson”.  We start with the factors our 2014 report highlighted and the DOJ confirmed, which led the Missouri Supreme Court to take over Ferguson’s municipal court.  Our simple premise is this:  if data showing racial disparity in traffic stops, excessive revenue, and excessive warrants and arrest that disproportionately impact communities of color and poor people is enough to prompt action in Ferguson, why isn’t it enough to prompt action in every court that fails in the same or similar ways?

Joshua Feinzig, a Liman Fellow from Yale, Chris McAllister, a Washington University School of Law student, and I wrote this paper over the summer detailing six other municipalities in the region that are either the same or demonstrably worse than Ferguson.  In it, ArchCity Defenders renews the call it made one year ago today:  implement procedural protections guaranteeing the constitutional rights of defendants, proportion fines to income, and replace the existing system with a full time, professional court that is open everyday and easily accessible.

Please click the link below to read the report.

It’s Not Just Ferguson-Consolidate the Municipal Courts