By George E. Curry
St. Louis County has 90 municipalities – ranging in population from 13 to nearly 52,000 – and most of them sustain themselves by targeting, fining and jailing poor Missouri residents, many of them Black, who are unable to pay traffic tickets.
A “white paper” by ArchCity Defenders, a group that defends the poor in the St. Louis area for free, carefully details how Ferguson and other small villages and municipalities in the state have perfected the art of exploiting those who drive while Black – and poor.
According to the report, three municipal courts in Missouri – Ferguson, Bel-Ridge and Florissant – “were chronic offenders and serve as prime examples of how these practices violate fundamental rights of the poor, undermine public confidence in the judicial system, and create inefficiencies.”
It continued, “Overall, we found that by disproportionately stopping, charging and fining the poor and minorities, by closing the Courts to the public, and by incarcerating people for the failure to pay fines, these policies unintentionally push the poor further into poverty, prevent the homeless from accessing the housing, treatment, and jobs they so desperately need to regain stability in their lives, and violate the Constitution.
“These ongoing violations of the most fundamental guarantees of the Constitution are the product of a disordered, fragmented, and inefficient approach to criminal justice in St. Louis County. It represents a failure of the Municipalities to comply with the guarantees of counsel, reasonable bond assessments, and other constitutional and legal rights of those accused. And, perhaps most importantly, these practices create animosity in the community, contribute to the fractured nature of the St. Louis region, and cost the individual municipalities and the region financially.”
Unmistakably, poor Blacks drive through certain Missouri municipalities with a huge X on their back.
• Last year in Bel-Ridge, 75.7 percent of all traffic stops involved Black motorists. What happened after the stops is even more telling. According to the study, 100 percent of all searches and arrests growing out of traffic stops were of African Americans. In other words, of 775 Blacks pulled over by police, 11 were searched and 32 were arrested. Of 219 non-Blacks stopped, none were searched and none were arrested.
• In Ferguson, 86 percent of all traffic stops in 2013 involved Blacks. Of those stopped, Blacks were almost twice as likely as Whites to be searched (12.1 percent vs. 6.9 percent) and twice as likely to be arrested (10.4 percent vs. 5.2 percent). Interestingly, after being searched, only 21.7 percent of Blacks were found with contraband, compared to 34 percent of Whites.
• In Florissant, Blacks were arrested 14.9 percent of the time, twice the White rate of 7.2 percent. Whites were searched 8 percent of the time vs. 15.8 percent of Blacks. Yet, contraband was found on only 7.4 percent of Black residents compared to 12 percent of Whites.
These disproportionate arrests of Blacks translates into more green for the cities.
For example, of Pine Lawn’s 4,204 residents, 96 percent are Black. It has a per capita income of only $13,000. Last year, Pine Lawn collected more than $1.7 million in fines and court fees. That’s $500,000 more than Chesterfield, an affluent, predominantly White suburb with five times the population of Pine Lawn (47,000) and a per capita income almost four times that of Pine Lawn ($50,000).
If one can afford an attorney, they have all of the advantages. Typically, in the case of a speeding ticket, the attorney requests what is called “recommendation for disposition.” In those cases a speeding ticket is amended to a non-moving violation, such as excessive vehicle noise, upon payment of a fine and court costs. The offender is able to avoid points on his or her record as well as a possible insurance increase.
Poor people, however, don’t get that benefit.
“…in all but a very few, these municipalities fail to provide lawyers for those who cannot afford counsel,” the report stated. “As a result, unrepresented defendants often enter pleas of guilty without knowing that they have right to consult with a lawyer, although this information is on many court websites. Defendants are also sentenced to probation and to the payment of unreasonable fines without a knowing, voluntary, and intelligent waiver of defendant’s right to counsel. Despite their poverty, defendants are frequently ordered to pay fines that are frequently triple their monthly income.
“Defendants are entitled to a hearing to determine their ability to pay, under Missouri Law. Upon revocation of probation because of their inability to pay, defendants are again entitled to an inquiry into their ability to pay. Based on our observations, this rarely occurs. As a result, defendants are incarcerated for their poverty.”
Yes, race and money still matters.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA) and BlackPressUsa.com. He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge and George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook.