“Policing and Profit”
When residents of Ferguson, Missouri, took to the streets last August to protest the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager killed by a white police officer, the events dramatically exposed an image of modern policing that most Americans rarely see: columns of police pointing military weaponry at peaceful protestors. But the ongoing tension between residents and police in Ferguson was also indicative of another, less visual development in how the police are used to oppress impoverished communities: using law enforcement to extract revenue from the poor.
In the late 1980s, Missouri became one of the first states to let private companies purchase the probation systems of local governments. Show More In these arrangements, municipalities impose debt on individuals through criminal proceedings and then sell this debt to private businesses, which pad the debt with fees and interest. This debt can stem from fines for offenses as minor as rolling through a stop sign or failing to enroll in the right trash collection service. . In Ferguson, residents who fall behind on fines and don’t appear in court after a warrant is issued for their arrest (or arrive in court after the courtroom doors close, which often happens just five minutes after the session is set to start for the day) are charged an additional $120 to $130 fine, along with a $50 fee for a new arrest warrant and 56 cents for each mile that police drive to serve it. Once arrested, everyone who can’t pay their fines or post bail (which is usually set to equal the amount of their total debt) is imprisoned until the next court session (which happens three days a month). Anyone who is imprisoned is charged $30 to $60 a night by the jail. If an arrestee owes fines in more than one of St. Louis County’s eighty-one municipal courts, they are passed from one jail to another to await hearings in each town.
The number of these arrests in Ferguson is staggering: in 2013, Ferguson’s population was around 21, and its municipal court issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses. Ferguson has a per capita income of $20,472, and nearly a quarter of residents and over a third of children live below the poverty line. Court fines and fees are Ferguson’s second-largest source of income, generating over $2.4 million in revenue in 2013. Though many of the towns that surround St. Louis draw significant revenue through their courts, Ferguson is an outlier: in 2013, its municipal court issued over twice as many arrest warrants per capita as any other town in Missouri.
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In April 2012, Tom Barrett was arrested for stealing a can of beer from a convenience store in Augusta, Georgia. When Barrett appeared in court, he was offered the services of a court-appointed attorney for a $80 fee. Barrett refused to pay and pled “no contest” to a shoplifting charge. The court sentenced Barrett to a $200 fine plus a year of probation. Barrett’s probation terms required him to wear an alcohol-monitoring bracelet. Even though Barrett’s sentence did not require him to stop drinking alcohol (and the bracelet would thus detect all the alcohol Barrett chose to drink with no consequences), he was ordered to either rent this bracelet or go to jail. The bracelet cost Barrett a $50 startup fee, a $39 monthly service fee, and a $12 daily usage fee. Though Barrett’s $200 fine went to the city, these other fees (totaling over $400 a month) all went to Sentinel Offender Services, a private company.
Unable to pay Sentinel’s fees, Barrett spent more than a month in jail before he convinced a friend to lend him the $80 startup fee. But Barrett, whose only source of income at the time was selling his blood plasma, struggled to keep up with Sentinel’s fees. “You can donate plasma twice a week as long as you’re physically able to . . . . I’d donate as much plasma as I could and I took that money and I threw it on the leg monitor.”. As Barrett began skipping meals to pay Sentinel, his protein levels dropped so much that he was ineligible to donate plasma. After Barrett’s debt grew to over $1,000, Sentinel obtained a warrant for his arrest. Barrett was arrested and told by a judge that he could stay out of jail if he paid Sentinel several hundred dollars. Barrett was still unable to pay: “I’m thinking, ‘But the whole problem is, I don’t have money.’ So they locked me up. And I just said, ‘Golly.’”
Barrett’s story cuts across several aspects of how local governments use policing, how private companies profit from policing, and how poor people experience policing. This section describes three examples of this development: (1) “usage” fees imposed by criminal courts, (2) private probation supervision, and (3) civil forfeiture.