One problem that's hard to overcome is the money. The municipal court in Ferguson wasn't about making the community safe. It was a cash cow. Municipal courts are cash cows.
One of our clients, a man with an IQ of about 45, lives on food stamps, no cash income whatsoever. He's arrested for the high crime of burning leaves without a license.
He's fined $500. He doesn't have it. So he's put on probation and told you can pay it in installments, $45 a month to a private probation firm. By the time we came along he was roughly $600 in debt as a result of all this. It's very hard to get these little communities like Warwick, Georgia, population 459––last year the municipal court there brought in $1.2 million, all on arresting people on things like loitering, j-walking, traffic tickets, standing around, all of that. Because the whole purpose of the court is to make money. They're bringing a lot of people in the system at the lowest level that don't need to be in the system at all.
Adam Foss: If I'm in this jurisdiction, I'm a prosecutor, and the guy comes in for burning leaves, and somebody suggests to me that this $250 fine is going to require probation, and I know that money is going to a private probation company, I've taken an oath to do justice. The one person in the system that can stop this a prosecutor by saying, okay, do $250 of community service and call it a day.
Sherrilyn Ifill: There's a window open right now where people are looking very closely at our criminal justice system from soup to nuts. There are going to be some changes. How widespread they will be, how much they stick, how deep they go, is yet to be determined, but I feel an extraordinary sense of urgency for this moment, because people are paying attention. This is not a new issue. This is what our criminal justice system has been like. But people are now paying attention.
Adam Foss: Prosecutors come to the job the very first day wanting to be hugging defendants at the end of the day and hearing, "You changed my life, thank you, everything is good." And you walk in and are beaten down by this tradition. There's no accountability for it, no metrics for it, nobody said, what is a good prosecutor? What does that mean? So what we're left with is how many trials have you had? How many have you won? And how many days or years of incarceration have you gotten? Not because any of those are indicative of public safety, or getting accountability from a defendant, or making a victim happy. It's just what we're left with. If we can train prosecutors from the very beginning of their career...
Stephen Bright: We've taken power from judges and given it to prosecutors, who now decide, with their charging decisions and whether they file repeat-offender papers and all sorts of other things, how long a person is going to serve. So they decide the sentence. The judge is relegated to being a clerk at the end of the process. He signs off on whatever the sentence is. That's got to be shifted back in the other direction, because the prosecutor is an advocate. We theoretically have an adversary system. The worst system is one that masquerades as an adversary system and is not one.