By Nusrat Choudhury, Staff Attorney, ACLU Racial Justice Program
The tragic killing of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last August has brought much needed attention to the epidemic of racialized policing in America. In Ferguson and cities throughout the country, police stop, search, and arrest black people and other communities of color at rates grossly disproportionate to their population.
In late December, the Missouri Supreme Court took an important step to addressing the problem: curbing the use of municipal courts as debtors' prisons. An editorial in the St. Louis Post- Dispatch explains the vicious cycle linking racial profiling and debtors' prisons in St. Louis County:
It works like this: A black driver gets pulled over in Bel-Ridge, for example, for failure to signal. Maybe a headlight is out on the car, too, or the registration has expired. The driver gets a summons for two or three violations. Hundred dollar fines are stacked on top of each other.
Violators sit and wait on the one night a month the municipal court is in session, stewing as lawyers, most of whom are white, get preferential treatment. They get called up first by the judge to dispose of the cases of their paying clients.
Those who can't afford a lawyer often can't afford the fines, either. So when their turn finally comes, they tell the court they can't pay. They may be threatened with jail if they don't come up with the money. If they miss a payment or a court date, a warrant can be issued for their arrest.
In St. Louis County, as throughout the country, modern-day debtors prisons exist despite the fact that the United States formally abolished the incarceration of people who failed to pay off debts nearly two centuries ago. In the process, poor people –disproportionately people of color – and their families suffer from the collateral impacts of jailing on employment, and housing.
In September 2014, shortly after the killing of Brown, lawyers from Arch City Defenders and law professors at St. Louis University sought help in breaking this cycle. They wrote to the Missouri Supreme Court asking for a change to the court rules that guide judges in collecting fines and fees from defendants.
The Missouri Supreme Court showed that it understood what's going on. It revised a Missouri court rule to explicitly allow judges to permit defendants to pay through installment plans and to waive or reduce fines for those who cannot pay. The rule now also requires judges to schedule a "show cause" hearing before issuing arrest warrants for failure to appear, which gives defendants an opportunity to explain why they did not or cannot pay their fines.
And, crucially important, the rule now provides that when a defendant is held in contempt of court for failure to pay, the fine may be collected by the same means used to enforce court orders awarding money damages to a party.
This means that a Missouri court cannot use its contempt authority to jail a person who is simply too poor to pay a fine or fee. Instead, it must use the same procedures routinely employed to enforcement judgments, such as ordering a lien on real or personal property. Using these methods requires providing important procedural safeguards and respecting statutory exemptions from collection for home and personal property, both of which help to protect the poor.
In a country where the racial wealth gap remains stark, the link between driving while black and jailed for being poor has a devastating impact on people and communities of color. The Missouri Supreme Court showed that it understands the need to break the cycle.
Other courts should follow its lead.