How Municipal Courts Target Low-Income Communities

A new federal report explains why the number of people jailed for unpaid fines can’t be fully quantified across the U.S.

The exterior of the Ferguson, Missouri, municipal court
Jeff Roberson / AP

It was the U.S. Justice Department’s investigation into the Ferguson Police Department after an officer killed Michael Brown in 2014 that “awakened” the federal government and much of the general public to the burden of municipal fines and fees, issued for everything from traffic violations, to mismatched curtains, to court costs. When people can’t afford to pay these fees, they end up with criminal warrants, drivers’ license suspensions, and even end up in jail.

The Justice Department’s investigation found that police in Ferguson, Missouri, had issued more than 90,000 citations and summons between 2010 and 2014, nearly 90 percent of which were given to African Americans. This discrimination was done intentionally, and Ferguson ratcheted up the volume on low-level offense citations and fines more as a way to raise revenue than for public safety, according to the DOJ investigation.

But Ferguson is far from the only city that was profiting from poor people this way. And the Justice Department doesn’t have the authority to investigate court systems for the kinds of patterns of abuse found in Ferguson like it does for investigating police departments.

A new report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights implores Congress to change that. In its report, “Targeted Fines and Fees Against Low-Income Communities of Color,” the commission lays out the scope of the problem with municipal fees and fines that can send people to jail, building on the findings of several other studies and lawsuits since Ferguson.

It’s important to understand how the fines and fees bubble started inflating to begin with. The civil-rights commission report pins this on the introduction of “broken windows” policies of the 1980s that focused law-enforcement work on low-level offenses. As arrests for those minor infractions increased, so did the fines and fees associated with them, reads the report, and cities began realizing that this was a solid revenue stream, particularly for municipal and court operations. That structure became even more appealing as a way of circumventing raising taxes, which was becoming increasingly difficult to do in the 1990s.

The fines’ and fees’ expansion tracked with the expansion of incarceration, which was fed, in no small part, by people jailed for failure to make these court payments. Data scientist Dan Kopf used Census data from 20,000 cities to find that municipalities with larger black and Latino populations were the ones that relied most heavily on court fines and fees for revenue. Kopf found no correlation between a city’s poverty rate and its reliance on fines and fees. Race was the deciding factor.

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

While race may be the prevailing factor in cities with heavy reliance on the court fines and fees complex, it remains true that it’s low-income people who most often get locked up because they can’t pay those legal obligations. Some of the key findings from the civil-rights commission’s report explain why this is problematic:

  • There have been at least three major court rulings saying that incarcerating people who can’t afford to pay fines/fees is unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Tate v. Short, Beaden v. Georgia, and Turner v. Rogers that jailing people for missing court payments without first assessing their ability to pay violated equal protection and due process laws.
  • We don’t know how many people are incarcerated in the U.S. because of failure to pay fines. Most cities and states don’t collect data on this and neither does the federal government. As a result, “the absence of data prevents researchers from measuring the costs incurred in pursuing the debt that people owe.” For some cities those costs include hiring private companies to collect these debts—a model that “creates financial incentives … to keep debtors in the system,” reads the report. For the individuals incarcerated because of that system, the costs could be death.  
  • Imposing fines/fees on juvenile offenders increases their chances of returning to jail, but city courts do it anyway. Reads the report: “Juvenile fines and fees might increase recidivism, push poor youth further into the juvenile system—and perhaps jail or prison later on—exacerbating existing racial and ethnic inequities within the juvenile system, and magnify both the economic and emotional distress for impoverished families.”

In addition to its Ferguson investigation, the Justice Department got a court system in Hinds County, Mississippi, to agree to stop incarcerating people for court-payment failures without an initial assessment of a defendant’s ability to pay. But the commission suggests that Congress also pass legislation that prohibits the “actual or threatened use of incarceration” for those who can’t afford to pay court fees and fines. That would knock the practice out in all cities once and for all, relieving the Justice Department from doing these investigations one by one.

Without federal intervention, some individual cities have put their own programs in place to limit the lasting impact of fines and fees. This weekend, hundreds of New Orleanians with outstanding traffic tickets, court fines, warrants, and suspended drivers licenses will have an opportunity to have their records cleared and financial obligations reduced at the Warrant Clinic, sponsored by the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. This is the organization’s second year doing this, though other criminal-justice-reform organizations hold similar clinics in the city.

There are fewer places better suited for this kind of amnesty work, given New Orleans’ reputation as an incarceration capital. The city earned the reputation in part for locking up poor residents when they don’t pay up. Louisiana recently passed a slate of reforms to end or curb many of these practices.

But if Congress banned the threat of incarceration, warrant clinics like the one sponsored by the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice this weekend would no longer be warranted.