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.