Tags: Ferguson in Crisis | Ferguson | courts | Michael Brown | warrants

NYT: Ferguson Softens Court System After Brown Shooting

Tuesday, 09 September 2014 08:56 AM

The troubled city of Ferguson, Missouri, is making widespread changes to its court system following the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer.

The City Council has established a citizen's review board to give guidelines to the police force and plans to cut back on the fines and bench warrants that have come under fire for unfairly targeting struggling blacks in the community, The New York Times reported.

Young black men have been caught up in a system of unpaid tickets and arrest warrants while the municipal courts have padded the city’s coffers with debilitating traffic fines, the newspaper said.

The fines are the Ferguson’s second-highest revenue source and have led to criticism that the tickets were being handed out excessively, ultimately leading to more fees and arrests for people who cannot afford to pay them.

The fact that young blacks in the city go from one jail to another was one of the main underlying reasons that Ferguson erupted in riots after Michael Brown, 18, was shot dead by officer Darren Wilson last month, according to the Times.

The sweeping changes were announced in a pre-emptive move shortly before a City Council meeting Tuesday, where a tense debate was expected on capping the amount of city revenue from fines.

The city’s traffic fine revenue has soared by 44 percent since 2011. More than 24,000 warrants for 12,000 cases were issued last year, equivalent to three warrants for every household in Ferguson, the Times reported.

The city also announced a monthlong delay to allow pending warrants to be quashed, which was seen as a huge triumph for activists who had planned to take up the issue at the council meeting, according to the newspaper.

"The overall goal of these changes is to improve trust within the community and increase transparency, particularly within Ferguson’s courts and police department," council member Mark Byrne told the Times. "We want to demonstrate to residents that we take their concerns extremely seriously."

The court changes in the city of 21,000 people was hailed by Julia Ho, a community leader of Hands Up United, an organization that formed after Brown’s killing.

"The bench warrants and traffic fines were a regressive tax on the poor and criminalization of poverty," Ho said. "If people no longer receive these charges, that’s huge. It keeps people from getting stuck in modern debtor’s prisons."

The Arch City Defenders, a nonprofit legal group, and law professors at the St. Louis University School of Law had written to Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III, urging him to waive all pending fines and warrants for nonviolent offenses while calling them an impediment to people finding jobs and housing.

Thomas Harvey, executive director of the Defenders, said the city had fulfilled about 75 percent of their requests. "Although it’s not exactly what we asked for, it’s a substantial step forward," he said.

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Ferguson is making widespread changes to the city's court system following the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer.
Ferguson, courts, Michael Brown, warrants
Tuesday, 09 September 2014 08:56 AM
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