ST. LOUIS • A report released Friday found that municipal court fines and fees are used to pay for services unrelated to policing and that they foster distrust and disenfranchise the poor and people of color across the country.
To counteract the cycle of poverty that such fees can trap people in, the report from the Harvard Kennedy School and the National Institute of Justice suggests governments consider basing payments on what people can afford, offer community service options to pay off debts and appoint an independent commission to determine causes and consequences of municipal fees.
The report, the fourth in a series of papers on criminal justice from a project among Harvard, the Justice Department and others, cites Ferguson as a place where fines and fees “are generously assessed and aggressively collected.” It found that those fees covered more than 20 percent of the city’s general revenue fund.
The report’s authors say the growing practice of using fines to fund government services has left millions of people across the United States in billions of dollars in debt to the country’s courts. At least 48 states have increased criminal and civil fees since 2010, which researchers attribute to municipal revenue losses during the recession.
Fines and fees are largely used to fund courthouses and equipment and pay the salaries of judges and prosecutors.
“We take places like Ferguson as symbolic of what happens across the country,” said report co-author Sandra Susan Smith, a professor at the University of California Berkeley. Smith said she believes everyone should be concerned about systems that hinder some from fully participating in professional and civic life.
North St. Louis County resident Charles Davis, 38, is among those who have experienced firsthand the hardships associated with debt from fines and municipal court fees. In 2002, Davis said he started receiving multiple tickets from an officer when leaving his Hanley Crossing apartment to go to work in St. Peters.
“All together, he probably gave me 25 tickets,” Davis said, for violations such as driving without insurance or vehicle registration, costs he said he couldn’t afford with a baby on the way and working a job that paid $9 an hour.
Eventually, Davis said he received several more tickets in other municipalities, his drivers license was revoked and he ended up spending a month in jail for driving without one. Davis, who believes he has warrants in at least 15 municipalities in St. Louis County, attributes some of the traffic stops he experienced to racial profiling.
Now a father of three, Davis said he’s unsure if he will ever be able to pay back what he believes he owes the county. “At this point, I would need over $10,000 to get my license back,” he said.
Davis owns a business that installs wires for cable and telephone companies but said he is disqualified from getting contracts from some companies because he still doesn’t have a drivers license.
“I’m a productive citizen,” Davis said. “I’ve been put in a situation that is basically unfair.”
St. Louis-based ArchCity Defenders has filed several lawsuits in recent years against the so-called “debtors prisons.” Last year, the group filed 10 federal civil rights lawsuits that involve cities and police departments in St. Louis, St. Louis County and St. Charles.
The firm won a $4.7 million settlement in December against Jennings to repay nearly 2,000 people for illegally jailing them because they could not pay their debts. Reports exposing these practices also led to some judicial reform in the region, including in Ferguson, where local revenue decreased $1 million between fiscal years 2014 and 2015 due to a drop in money from fines and court fees.
As a new administration and leadership changes at the U.S. Justice Department approaches, one of the group’s co-founders says people should feel more compelled to continue working to defend underrepresented groups from unlawful practices.
“The type of scrutiny may not be there anymore,” ArchCity Defenders’ Chief Operations Officer Michael-John Voss speculated of the Justice Department under President Donald Trump. “It’s up to us here on the ground.”'
This story has been updated to reflect the paper is the fourth in a series of reports from the Harvard Kennedy School, not the first.