CBS Details Route To ‘Debtor Prison’ In U.S.

Starting with the story of a Georgia teenager who spent five days in jail for an illegal left-hand turn, the CBS News “Market Watch” program is outlining how the civil-case to jail-case route actually happens. It turns out that the 19-year-old driver could not pay $838 quickly enough. Eventually, a lawsuit over the case was reportedly settled for $70,000, but CBS says the practice remains common nationally.

Of course, the poster child for the practice, and what it can trigger, is Ferguson, MO, where the city’s finance director famously offered advice to the police chief in a March 2010 letter, warning that “unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year,” the city faced a budget shortfall, said Norquist. He added that a state lawmaker had told him police officers would get little notices along with their paychecks, warning: “If we don’t get more tickets, there won’t be pay increases.”

Read about the new American debtor’s prison here: How you could go to debtors’ prison in the U.S.

Justice Dept. Suing Ferguson Over Failure To Make Changes

Photo of Michael Brown Sr., right, at a City Council meeting in Ferguson, Mo., from a New York Times report, 2/10/16, "Department of Justice Sues Ferguson, Which Reversed Course on Agreement"

Photo of Michael Brown Sr., right, at a City Council meeting in Ferguson, Mo., from a New York Times report, 2/10/16, “Department of Justice Sues Ferguson, Which Reversed Course on Agreement”

The U.S. Justice Department is suing the town of Ferguson over its refusal to make changes in how its police and justice system operates. Ferguson, of course, is the St. Louis suburb that been the focus of a national protest over police behavior since 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed in a police shooting there is 2014. Among other problems, the city’s court system was an example of how “civil” infractions like traffic tickets could become criminal charges if court dates, fines or other procedural milestones were missed. A federal report found that the police were acting more or less as a profit-generating system for the town’s budget.


Read about the lawsuit in a very solid New York Times story.

CNN Notes FBI Director Blaming ‘Ferguson Effect’ For Crime Increase

Has a “chilling effect” on police activity, sparked by increased scrutiny by cellphone cameras and media attention in the wake of Ferguson, Mo. controversy, caused an uptick in crime? That’s a theory apparently getting traction with FBI Director James Comey, who CNN reports “… has thrown his weight behind the idea that restraint by cops in the wake of criticism is at least partly to blame for a surge in violent crime in some cities.”
The important CNN report outlines that violent crime is actually at historic lows but certainly has increased when compared year-to-year in some cities. The report also notes that the increase comes just as various political factions seem to agree that reduced criminalization and incarceration rates should be a civic goal.

Texas To Rule On Civil Fees Issue

The Texas Supreme Court is expected to hear a case this week that might clarify when local courts can force poor plaintiffs to pay fees. The Texas Tribune news website explains that”… in 2012, six plaintiffs from Tarrant County sued the local district court clerk for charging them court fees even after they filed affidavits of their indigent status — also known as ‘pauper petitions’ — when they filed for divorce. But the clerk says final divorce decrees require that each party pay its share of the court costs.” 
The Tribune report also placed the issue in some context: “… court costs and fines surfaced as one of the more pressing criminal justice issues in the aftermath of the police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. While a grand jury cleared the officer, Darren Wilson, of criminal wrongdoing, a subsequent U.S. Department of Justice report revealed how the police department in Ferguson wrote more tickets for mostly poor African Americans than any other ethnic group. Following the shooting of Brown, federal investigators found that Ferguson relied on municipal ticketing and fines as a revenue generator for the city’s budget.”

‘Renaissance Mayor’ Embraces Reform in Pensacola

Originally published in the Huffington Post

As last month’s one-year anniversary of the “Ferguson” protest was duly noted, it became difficult to ignore just how little actual reform has been accomplished as old political issues tried to capitalize on new controversy — like, as Politico noted, using the reforms to try and consolidate towns into larger municipalities.

You can commend the highly cited decision of a Ferguson judge to “suspend” arrest warrants issued prior to Dec. of 2014. However, you also have to note that the order was voluntary and didn’t actually dismiss any cases; it calls for retrials, but since those cases are quasi-criminal it’s hard to see how that would not violate the ban on “double jeopardy.”

Basically, Ferguson remains a mess and illustrates how difficult it can be to change a system. If a town of 20,000 souls can’t find a way to police itself, what chance do we have in larger communities? Indeed, it might be that the smaller cities are the “new incubators” for finding solutions that scale across larger areas, a role that state and local governments have long played.

You can look to places like Compton (yes, THAT Compton) for innovation from that city’s first female mayor, Aja Brown. Or try the beach community of Pensacola, where a native son has transitioned from the private sector to become a “CEO” style leader – and the Republican is embracing a program to bring convicted felons back into the community.

A Pensacola native, Ashton Hayward attended Florida State University and worked in New York City before returning home in 2003. After running successful real estate investment firm, he entered politics with a run for mayor. It was the first election for a newly empowered office as Pensacola shifted to a “strong mayor” form of government. It took a runoff in 2010, but he won and ushered in a great deal of change starting with how the mayor’s responsibilities were categorized.

The mayor’s election is officially non-partisan, but Hayward is a Republican and can sound like the pro-business CEO he was: “We are a first class city that will compete regionally, nationally, and internationally for jobs, investment, and talent,” he says, explaining that he sees his constituents as shareholders in the future of his city. Move over Donald Trump!

He wasted little time. Through a combination of private investment and strong civic entrepreneurship, Hayward has overseen an overhaul of the historic downtown. Gone are the days when businesses struggled to attract large swaths of customers. There are now consumer friendly walk-and-bike environs downtown and it’s likely that thousands of jobs have been created.

“It is my hope that my legacy reflects the fact we have stopped talking about our city’s potential and instead are reaching it,” he says.

The mayor has tackled some of the “big issues” where reform has eluded many other cities, in fairly “conservative” fashion, including tackling public employee pension reforms with three unions, cutting unfunded pension liabilities by 15% and saving taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

But when it comes to the sort of civil issues like those seeding unrest in Ferguson, the mayor starts sounding downright progressive, including noting that his city, with 50,000 residents, gets only a small part of its budget from policing fees. (Ferguson famously is pretty much funded by tickets and the resulting fees and court incomes, as NPR explains.)

Perhaps reflecting a broader national trend, Hayward is also a vocal supporter of a program called REAP, for “Re-Entry Alliance Pensacola,” which has been working to bring non-violent offenders back into their communities. He didn’t start the program. It was formed (according to its website) when, at the “suggestion of M. Casey Rodgers, Chief Judge Federal District Court for the Northern District of Florida” created the group “… to assist federal inmates returning to our local community. An Inmate Mentoring Program had been previously established in 2012 primarily using local attorneys acting as mentors to inmates participating in the Federal Re-entry Court.”

“Once someone has served the time, paid restitution for his or her crime, and doesn’t pose a threat to others, I think everyone benefits if we work to integrate them as productive, taxpaying citizens,” says Hayward.

Look, as a mayor of any city, it’s tough to ride the wave of political office and not get pulled down by the sort of politics that blocked real change in Ferguson, even amid global headlines and an uprising. But Ashton Hayward has become a bit of a “Renaissance Mayor” and his supporters insist he’s created a swell of popularity and re-energized civic pride.

Which is good news as Ferguson, and doubtless other cities, smolder on.

(… this post is part of an ongoing National Courts Monitor series profiling U.S. mayors.)

Why Ferguson Opposed The ‘Ferguson Reforms’

With civil unrest in Ferguson, MO, once again making headlines, it’s probably worth noting that much of all this had to do with municipal court reform. In particular, it had to do with traffic tickets given to poor African-Americans and pretty much funding the city with that system. The Justice Department report called for sweeping changes, the state called for sweeping changes and newspapers reported on the famous “Ferguson Reforms.”
But once the national spotlight moved on, Ferguson and towns like it did not embrace the reforms, which by and large did not actually become law. One reason is that new laws would have placed limits on how much of a local city’s budget came from traffic enforcement, which some leaders think could lead to some towns going away. Conservatives, it turns out, have been on a “consolidation” kick of late… you can see POLITICO break down the issues here:

HuffPo Offers Look Back One Year After Ferguson

In one of those “it’s been a year already?” moments, the Huffington Post is offering a major deep-dive story into what the Ferguson unrest meant to both the local community and to the United States. It’s a good look at how things have changed, including the media treatment of police shootings. In particular, the story illustrates how non-criminal cases migrate into jail-worthy events.
The team-written report mostly comes down on the side of things getting better and perhaps the protests paying off, saying “… Ferguson’s protests spawned at least 40 state measures aimed at improving police tactics and use of force. The national conversation around race and policing has shifted so dramatically that the director of the FBI said law enforcement officials historically enforced “a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups” and discussed how unconscious racial bias affects police officers with no pushback from the law enforcement community.”
See the story here: The Ferguson Protests Worked

Post-Ferguson Reform Continues To Focus On Courts, Traffic


A new report released by a coalition of legal aid groups in California is the latest documentation of how local governments’ quest for traffic-ticket funds has skewed the judicial landscape. The Los Angeles Times notes that the report “… comes a month after the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division issued its report on Ferguson, Mo., which criticized similar practices for their disparate effect on low-income and largely minority populations.”

The report says that “… traffic-court fines layered with escalating fees and penalties have led to driver’s license suspensions for 4.2 million Californians — or one in six drivers — pushing many low-income people deeper into poverty…” 

“As in Ferguson,” the California report noted, “these policies disproportionately impact people of color, beginning with who gets pulled over in the first place.” Reformers are calling for, among other things, an end to license suspensions for unpaid tickets and a reduction in fees and penalties.

Read the LAT story here.

In Ferguson, Reform Begins With Courts

Confronting racial issues in Ferguson, Missouri – where the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer sparked demonstrations – apparently begins with the courts system. Reports the Guardian newspaper “… some residents have described the courts regime as ‘taxation without representation’ and complained of a cycle of punishment in which they were fined for not making it to court appearances set during working hours that they tried unsuccessfully to reschedule.”
Actually, the newspaper reports that the offence of “failure to appear” is to be abolished under the new rules, along with a $50 ‘warrant recall’ fine and $15 in other fees imposed on people who can not make court dates. The city council says it wants to stop using the fines as a “source of general revenue” for the city, but critics say a plan to cap such fees to “15 percent of the city budget” would actually allow for increasing the payments. 

The report also noted that “… many people in the city, which has a two-thirds black population and a police force that is 94% white, complain that the law enforcement system disproportionately targets black residents. Figures published in 2013 by Missouri’s attorney general showed that seven black drivers were stopped by police in the city for every white driver.”

Read the story here:  Ferguson reform to courts system could leave residents paying more