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“Policing and Profit”

Here is a passage from the open-access Harvard Law Review paper “Policing and Profit” cited by graccibros.

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.

. . . . . .

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.

Policing and Profit

  1. February 3, 2016 at 11:59 am

    In the words of President Calvin Coolidge, “the chief business of the American people is business.” And in the words of “Boss” Tweed: “We’re burying a lot of votes tonight.” Buying and selling, doing business is the main life of America. When asked to sign bill creating the EPA President Nixon’s only question was, “Is this good for business?” When the answer he got back was yes, he signed. So why should selling and buying the courts or jails or even prisoners or probationers be a surprise? The surprise would be if it didn’t happen. It’s a simple question really. How much are you willing and/or able to pay to remain free?

    • February 3, 2016 at 1:36 pm

      The real question is how many completely innocent families are European and US citizens willing to kill in order to remain free.

  2. graccibros
    February 3, 2016 at 3:28 pm

    Thanks for posting this Garrett. You’ve captured the essential points. My reaction was upon reading this, and I think I got to it not by a headline but by an incidental thread, was “how could this happen in modern America,” this is from the Deep South in the 1870’s, 1880’s…”?

    My take is that this is where neoliberalism’s austerity and drive for privatization gobble up civil society – for the bottom 40%….

    How this article has not come up in a question during the political debates is beyond me. It’s shocking, and raises at least three direct Constitutional violations in these practices…so a good question for the Constitution loving Republican Right…

    Have I missed something, someone please tell me that it was all aired out on CNN or Charlie Rose or in the NY Times, and I missed it…

    And isn’t this the perfect “how the other half lives” piece to go with Bernie Sanders criticism of no Banker ever being given jail time?

  3. antireifier
    February 3, 2016 at 4:37 pm

    “in 2013, Ferguson’s population was around 21, …” ?? What?

  4. graccibros
    February 3, 2016 at 5:37 pm

    Just checked the paper itself. Ferguson’s population in 2013 was 21,000, not 21.

  5. February 4, 2016 at 1:42 pm

    Amazing. Again, I see this as an effect of the poisonous philosophy of positivism, according to which “morality is as meaningless as a cry of pain.” See Julie Reuben: The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality. If MBA’s are taught that the only business of business is to make profits, and to worry about social responsibility is to sin against their stockholders, then these consequences are inevitable.

    • February 5, 2016 at 4:13 am

      Asad, I think you generally understand just how bad things have been made today by certain ways of acting (whether banking, economic theories, journals, or members of Congress, geographical restrictions, etc.). But you give all that away by statements such as, “If MBA’s are taught that the only business of business is to make profits, and to worry about social responsibility is to sin against their stockholders, then these consequences are inevitable.” Most children are “taught” it is wrong to lie. Yet many of these children still lie, both as children and as adults. Teaching MBAs to serve only the interests of shareholders and profit does not necessarily mean they will do so. First, they have to know these interests and separate them out from other interests. Then they need to see these interests in action. To follow them. Finally, they to experience some connection to the interests that brings them into their daily lives. In sum, the first five years of the life of a trader in a major Wall Street stock or equity firm.

  6. graccibros
    February 4, 2016 at 2:10 pm

    I’m still puzzling over the fact that this article didn’t seem to gain any legs, to be picked up by reporters and interjected into several questions for both parties. For the left, it takes the logic of austerity, of balanced budgets, to a new extreme with a class and racial vengeance. For the Right, is seems to violate at least three Constitutional safeguards that should protect individuals from these cycles of imprisonment at their own expense. For libertarians, the same…for Black Lives Matter, it confirms much of what they thought and have stated in public, but just as importantly, it gives them, if the paper could become part of a serious dialogue, a chance to explore how race and political economy entangle themselves so deeply in America.

    I’ve rhetorically asked: how in a nation of millions of lawyers, could the findings here not risen to a genuine national self-examination? How could the whistle not have been blown earlier?
    Sadly I have my own answers. In Maryland, around 2010-2012, I did a close examination of the statements of Democratic and Republican candidates for state office in Annapolis and found very little difference. State budgets in Maryland, as in most American states, must be balanced each year by law, excepting declarations of economic emergency which must be voted on. The working premise of Maryland state “economics” therefore was the proverbial “household budget analogy,” that Maryland must act responsibly like families and not spend beyond its means. There was no sense however, and no asterisks, that this did not apply nationally, where the powers of the Central Bank change the terms of this conventional wisdom. Given these dynamics, and the Republican lock-step ideology of no new taxes, anti-gov’t and anti-spending, plus racial prejudice…and I guess I’m gradually stripping away my initial incredulity at where this ended up…and by the way, journalist Chris Hedges and reported on the privatization trend inside Maryland prisons and push in the same directions, if not to the extent cited in the Harvard paper.

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