Municipal “Violations” as Racial and Class Injustice

Municipal violation you say? Such a lofty term, but to many it simply translates to a heedless financial hassle. Many of us have received parking and/or speeding tickets in our past. I myself have racked up my share as a lead-footed and non-paying-metered teen and college student.

Boring topic, right? But when one begins to peel the layers back, they encounter a metaphoric fetid smell surrounding an intricate topic of injustice, judicial misappropriation, and economic subjugation concerning the poor. For many with the monetary means and legal resources, a hit to the bank account and possibly some time with your attorney is procurable. But for a certain segment of the U.S. population that continue to be overlooked (with the exception of amusing attempts during presidential elections) due to their economic status or racial makeup, these so-called small municipal violations can lead to dire financial and criminal consequences.

Case in point, the findings of the Department of Justice (DOJ) during the week of March 5th. They revealed that the city council of Ferguson, Missouri was successful at maximized their city fiscal revenue by urging the local police department to issue more tickets for minor offenses. With very little applicability toward the ultimate goal of ensuring public safety, Ferguson police not only habitually, but competitively amongst themselves conducted traffic stops and issued citations. The DOJ report went as far to state that,

“‘Issuing three or four charges in one stop is not uncommon. Officers sometimes write six, eight, or, in at least one instance, fourteen citations for a single encounter.”

The moral and legal corruption did not stop with the police department and city council. The DOJ described how municipal court judges are influenced by their appointed city council members to generate revenue from the bench as well. In fact, their job performance is partly based on their abilities to financial generation proceeds to the city’s coffers.

An internal report in 2011 noted that regardless of municipal judge Ronald Brockmeyer’s failure to perform justly (i.e., not listening to testimony, reviewing relevant reports/criminal records of defendants, or allowing relevant witnesses appear for testimony before issuing a verdict), a requested reappointment was denied due to his illustrated previous ability to contribute to the city revenue from the bench. Further, the report stated:

“…it goes without saying the City cannot afford to lose any efficiency in our Courts, nor experience any decrease in our Fines and Forfeitures.”

The impact of said findings are even more pronounced when accounting for population trends. In 2013, Ferguson, a city with a population of 21,135 citizens issued approximately 32,975 arrests warrants. These warrants were issued for people mostly accused of non-violent driving violations, parking tickets, and housing code intrusions. In 2012, the city of collected 2.6 million dollars in municipal court fines and fees. Racially, statistics indicate that Blacks are disproportionately affected. Respectively, it has been shown that 86 percent and 12.7 percent of Black and White motorist were stopped. This is astounding when one recognizes that the population of Blacks and Whites are 67 and 29 percent respectively. In addition, In regard to traffic stops, Blacks citizens are stopped, searched, and arrested approximately two times more than their White counterparts.

Since there are no public defenders assigned to municipal courts, many of the 22 percent living below the poverty line who may have been on the wrong side of luck and consequentially arrested for frivolous traffic accounts, do not have access to free, and definitely not paid legal representation. Due to their inability to pay court fines, many defendants perform the “Curly Shuffle” and avoid court. Even if they did happen to appear, employees of the court have reported that hearings have a likelihood of beginning 30 minutes before their designated time. Doors are often locked at least 5 minutes before the official time began. This sort of court supervised shell game leads to additional charges mounting for those appearing before the court.

But do not worry; there is help. But this type of assistance comes with an unadorned high price. But this is not uncommon in our nation. As always, there are parasites falsely disguised as saviors who prey on the weak and suffering. Unscrupulous companies such as Judicial Correction Services (JCS) and Sentinel Offenders Services are blindly used by the judicial system to subjugate countless people living in poverty. If you are unfamiliar with the scheme, here is how it goes:

Let’s say you received a speeding ticket in Alabama for driving less than 25 miles over the posted limit. The actual fee and cost of the ticket is 20 and 162 dollars respectively. This brings you to a whopping total of 182 “American dollars (insert verbal emphasis).” But do not forget you are working two part-time jobs and attempting to provide for your family alone. It is hard enough simply keeping the lights on and some food in your baby’s belly. You try, but ultimately you cannot pay the total cost of fines and cost of the speeding violation.

The city in which you live then puts you on “pay-only” probation. The state of probation is not to ensure that you are avoiding the bad elements of street or drug life. It is merely a form of probation that is in place to make sure the state collects that cash money (ex. Any fines, fees and associated court costs). But in order for this to occur, you must first pay a fee of 10 dollars to be enrolled in the probation (set up fee). Once enrolled, your new monthly obligation is to visit (regardless of your employment obligations) your local JCS to pay 140 dollars. The problem is, a place such as JCS pockets 40 dollars. But you find yourself now falling behind on your payments. Additional fees are accrued alongside your standing debt. All of which prolongs your involvement in the court system. This is how these for-profit companies get their take. Slowly but surely, you find yourself sinking more and more into that all too familiar financial pit of misery. A bothersome, but easily dealt with obligation for the financially able, is a heavy yoke not easily removed from the neck of the poor.

In response to such practices, advocacy and social justice groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) have begun to fight for the marginalized. On behalf of Roxanne Reynolds, a federal lawsuit was filed on March 12, 2015 accusing JCS of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act due to their effort to extort funds from economically poor citizens of Alabama who fell behind on their payment plan. To coerce people, JCS used the threat of jail (debtors’ prison) to force people to continue with their payments. Attorney for SPLC stated that through court manipulation, places such as JCS have created a “two-tiered system of justice.” One tier houses those who can afford to pay and quickly settle all financial obligations. The other is occupied with those without the means who get entombed for months and possibly years in their system. ” In regards to Mrs. Reynolds, SPLC stated:

Reynolds earned very little on an assembly line making automobile parts. Plus, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and had to miss three months of work. When she fell behind on her payments, a JCS employee threatened her with jail. She did everything she could to pay. She ignored her mounting medical and utility bills. Once, she barely ate for a week. She was terrified about what would happen to her health in jail…Last year, Reynolds was finally able to pay off her debt – after 15 months and a four-day stint in jail.

Similar lawsuits have been filed throughout Alabama and Georgia. In Georgia for example, companies such as Sentinel Offender Services were extending “pay only” probation periods when citizens were unable to pay their costs. Further, in Sentinel Offender Services, LLC., v. Glover et al, (S14A1033 and S14X1036 et al., 2012, the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously ruled that municipal courts cannot “legally lengthen a person’s misdemeanor sentence beyond what was originally ordered by the sentencing court.” In fact, the Court declared that probation companies do not have the authority to “put fee collections on hold–a practice called tolling–or extend a probation sentence.” There is a maximum sentence of twelve months for a misdemeanor conviction.

Now that I am thinking, this practice seems very familiar. Oh yes, white America has a funny way of revising its racial practices of oppression to fit with the times. If we look back throughout the American history books, one would stumble upon a period from the end of the Civil War until World War II were Blacks, especially Black males were forced into a state of compulsory slavery in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia. In the eyes of Pulitzer Prize recipient Douglas Blackmon, these poor Blacks were seen to be involved in the practice of human labor trafficking. They were essentially sold to White owners of labor farms, timber mills, pine tar companies, and coal and road construction operations. These men were often physically and emotionally abused. Before being imprisoned, these men were initially jailed on trumped-up charges by paid off law enforcement officials (on the take of wealthy owners and compensated for their collection of Blacks). Once appearing before court, these kidnapped men were ordered to pay overpriced court costs or fines that resulted from their false charges. If they we unable to pay in court, local law officials gave them to rich land and business owners for as low as 25 dollars. Once the men were traded, they were told that they could not leave their employer until their debt was paid in full. Of course, this almost never occurred. Not only state, but also federal bodies of government knew of this practice. This custom continued in some form or fashion until the 1960s (Counter to Blackmon’s claim that it ended after WWII).

History does truly repeat itself. Again and Again, and . . . . . .

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