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US Justice Department Review Threatens Local Justice Reforms

Efforts to Protect Poor from Abusive Ordinances at Risk

The United States Department of Justice has ordered a review of all agreements, known as “consent decrees,” between the department and various US cities. These agreements were formed after its investigations turned up evidence of unlawful law enforcement practices. The fear is that Attorney General Jeff Sessions – who in a memo stated: “It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies” – wants to overturn them.

Missouri State Troopers in riot gear stand in formation outside the Ferguson Police Department in Ferguson, Missouri, November 24, 2014. © 2014 Reuters

Much of the public opposition to the review in Baltimore and other affected cities has focused on how it could halt critical police reform. But it also could roll back changes to a lesser-known insidious problem – one that creates deep fissures between communities and the police. It’s the practice of municipalities imposing heavy fees and fines on their poorest residents.

Take Ferguson, Missouri, where the police killing of Michael Brown led to protests and riots. A Justice Department investigation found the city brought in more money leveling municipal fines and fees against people than it did through property taxes. In 2013, the city had 21,135 people but 32,975 arrest warrants pending for nonviolent offenses, according to National Public Radio. City ordinances had fined defendants for failing to appear in court and even imprisoned some who didn’t pay without determining if they could pay. This sense that the justice system was rigged helped fuel the protests.

A consent decree between the Justice Department and Ferguson eliminated these draconian ordinances. It required that courts, before fining a defendant, assess whether the person could pay. The court must accept partial payments and could no longer issue arrest warrants to collect court debt. The agreement also required the city prosecutor to eliminate certain types of pending fees and forgive fines that went beyond the original amount for a violation. As a result, Ferguson recently reported that it had discharged over US$1.75 million in pending fines. The consent decree also mandated structural changes, like taking away prosecutorial powers from court staff and moving supervision of the Ferguson Municipal Court from the city finance director to the state court system.

These and other consent-decree requirements aim to bring Ferguson into compliance with state and federal law. Federal law empowers the Justice Department to negotiate and enforce such decrees when local systems of control and accountability fail to protect citizens. Most importantly, these decrees – despite shortcomings in protecting rights – could start to foster a sense of justice as well as trust between police and citizens, and thus increase public safety. Heavy-handed attempts to reverse them would undermine these important goals.

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