Thanks to the US Department of Justice, we’ve learned a lot about how authorities in Ferguson, Missouri have been using their police force and municipal court to bleed money from the poor to fill the city’s coffers. The report on Ferguson has triggered a new wave of public shock and revulsion, and prompted a raft of resignations by local officials. But Ferguson is not unique – not in the racism and abuse its police and courts have become synonymous with, nor in the crushing financial burdens imposed on some of its poorest residents. Many people in communities across the United States will think, as a reporter in Georgia told me yesterday, that many of the problems exposed in the Ferguson report sound “very familiar.”
One area where Ferguson is emblematic of a much wider problem is in its policy of wringing profits from its municipal court. Human Rights Watch has documented how local governments in many US states hire for-profit, “offender-funded” probation companies to go after people who struggle to pay down traffic tickets or other fines. Those companies often behave like abusive debt collectors. The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit today accusing the Alabama town of Clanton of using a company called Judicial Correction Services (JCS) to run a “racketeering enterprise that is extorting money from impoverished individuals under threat of jail.”
In 2012, an Alabama state judge blasted another town’s municipal court for using the same company to run what he called a “judicially-sanctioned extortion racket.” Just outside of Atlanta, the ACLU is suing a local court on behalf of a young man who was locked up for more than a week because he couldn’t come up with the money to pay a traffic ticket and JCS fees.
It is one thing to go after companies like JCS. A bigger problem is local officials who try to turn their local courts into cash cows to pay other government expenses. The Justice Department report on Ferguson shows very clearly where that path leads. It debases the integrity of local courts and risks turning them into agents of injustice. Instead of using the courts to squeeze their poorest inhabitants out of money they don’t have, local officials might think of boosting revenues the old fashioned way – by raising taxes.