Ferguson and the hidden tax on the poor

The Department of Justice has issued a scathing report of the policing practices of the city of Ferguson, MO in the wake of the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown last August. It reveals instance after instance of the way that the police abused poor and minority people, subjecting them to systematic arrests and harassment. The report details instances of racist, discriminatory, and abusive behavior.

What is most damning is that this was not due purely to racism, though that is bad enough. It looked like the city and the police and the legal system saw these fines and arrests as a way of generating revenue for the government. And they deliberately made fines for minor offenses exorbitantly high.

City, police, and court officials for years have worked in concert to maximize revenue at every stage of the enforcement process, beginning with how fines and fine enforcement processes are established. In a February 2011 report requested by the City Council at a Financial Planning Session and drafted by Ferguson’s Finance Director with contributions from Chief Jackson, the Finance Director reported on “efforts to increase efficiencies and maximize collection” by the municipal court. The report included an extensive comparison of Ferguson’s fines to those of surrounding municipalities and noted with approval that Ferguson’s fines are “at or near the top of the list.” The chart noted, for example, that while other municipalities’ parking fines generally range from $5 to $100, Ferguson’s is $102. The chart noted also that the charge for “Weeds/Tall Grass” was as little as $5 in one city but, in Ferguson, it ranged from $77 to $102. The report stated that the acting prosecutor had reviewed the City’s “high volume offenses” and “started recommending higher fines on these cases, and recommending probation only infrequently.” While the report stated that this recommendation was because of a “large volume of non-compliance,” the recommendation was in fact emphasized as one of several ways that the code enforcement system had been honed to produce more revenue.

People would be fined and/or arrested for all manner of offenses, even parking tickets, then when they could not pay the fines, additional penalties would be tacked on so that they were in permanent state of debt that they could never escape from, similar to victims of loan sharks except that in this case, the loan sharks had the power to beat you up and throw you in prison without fear of any legal repercussions. This policy was aimed at the poor. Fining well-to-do people does not generate as much money because they can simply pay the fines and walk away. It is the additional penalties that really bring in the money and the poor are the ones subjected to it. Furthermore, the police actually went out of their way to reduce or eliminate the tickets given to their friends. This is the hidden tax on the poor and it is a disgrace.

News reports have highlighted various horror stories that the report’s authors discovered in the course of their investigations. Juan Thompson and Ryan Devereaux of The Intercept give instance after instance of the hell that poor and minority people suffered at the hands of the police.

“Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs,” the report stated. “This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community.”

Discriminatory behavior by street-level cops was matched by racist attitudes by higher-level city officials. One remarkable section of the report detailed how “some Ferguson decision makers hold negative stereotypes about African Americans, and lack of personal responsibility is one of them”—despite the fact that black residents made incredible efforts to pay the fines that were disproportionately handed out to them. At the same time, according to the report, white Ferguson police officers made a habit of fixing parking tickets for friends. “Even as Ferguson City officials maintain the harmful stereotype that black individuals lack personal responsibility,” the report said, “and continue to cite this lack of personal responsibility as the cause of the disparate impact of Ferguson’s practices — white City officials condone a striking lack of personal responsibility.”

Caitlin MacNeal picks out five things in the report that shocked her. The sickening story that seems to epitomize the abuse and has been picked up by many news outlets is the one recounted by attorney general Eric Holder at the press conference on the release of the report.

During the summer of 2012, one Ferguson police officer detained a 32-year-old African American man who had just finished playing basketball at a park. The officer approached while the man was sitting in his car and resting. The car’s windows appeared to be more heavily tinted than Ferguson’s code allowed, so the officer did have legitimate grounds to question him. But, with no apparent justification, the officer proceeded to accuse the man of being a pedophile. He prohibited the man from using his cell phone and ordered him out of his car for a pat-down search, even though he had no reason to suspect that the man was armed. And when the man objected – citing his constitutional rights – the police officer drew his service weapon, pointed it at the man’s head, and arrested him on eight different counts. The arrest caused the man to lose his job.

You can be dead certain that Ferguson is not an isolated case and that his has become common throughout the country. As taxes have been cut on the rich and upper middle classes, local governments have used the poor to make up for lost revenue. Couple that with racist attitudes and contempt for the poor, and you have a toxic stew that should explain why the deaths and shootings of poor people by the police can produce such an explosive reaction. What surprises me is why there are not many more violent protests.


  1. moarscienceplz says

    There really should be something in the Constitution regarding fines as legal punishment. First thing, there should be no incentive to the government for collecting fines. Send all fines collected to the state or federal government and add them to the general fund. No local jurisdiction should get to hold on to any money collected. Second, scale the fines to the income of the miscreant. A $100 fine to me would do me no harm at all, but it could cost a poorer person his or her home. That is unequal treatment under the law, and it should be stopped.

  2. Henry Gale says

    On a slightly related note -- it appears that at least for traffic fines Finland has a progressive penalty system:


    Finland’s speeding fines are linked to income, with penalties calculated on daily earnings, meaning high earners get hit with bigger penalties for breaking the law. So, when businessman Reima Kuisla was caught doing 103km/h (64mph) in an area where the speed limit is 80km/h (50mph), authorities turned to his 2013 tax return, the Iltalehti newspaper reports. He earned 6.5m euros (£4.72m) that year, so was told to hand over 54,000 euros.

    That’s about $60,000 U.S. for going 14mph over the speed limit.

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