Money Drove Criminal Justice System In Ferguson, DOJ Report Says

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The Justice Department says police and courts in Ferguson, Mo., violated black residents' civil rights because officials saw them as a source of revenue. They were given excessive fines and fees.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The tension between police and the public in Ferguson, Mo., has emerged as a big story again this week. As we reported yesterday, the Justice Department will not bring criminal charges against the police officer who shot Michael Brown last summer. But in a scathing report, the department accuses police and courts in Ferguson of routinely violating the civil rights of black residents by arresting them too freely and charging excessive fines and fees. NPR's Joseph Shapiro has more.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The Justice Department report is blunt. Money drove and distorted the criminal justice system in Ferguson. City officials routinely wrote to the police chief, telling him to ramp up ticket collection and told court officials to do the same. The result, says the report - police in Ferguson viewed residents in African-American neighborhoods, and this is a quote, "less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue." Attorney General Eric Holder released the report.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: This emphasis on revenue generation through policing has fostered unconstitutional practices or practices that contribute to constitutional violations at nearly every level of Ferguson's law enforcement system.

SHAPIRO: Holder said it's commonplace for people to get stopped without reasonable suspicion then fined and arrested for minor offenses, like talking back to an officer or for the way they walk down the street. The attorney general told the story of one woman who parked her car in an illegal spot.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

HOLDER: For example, in 2007, one woman received two parking tickets that together totaled $152.

SHAPIRO: She was poor. She'd been homeless. She paid some of it but not all, so her fines kept growing far beyond the original $152.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

HOLDER: To date, she has paid $550 in fines and fees to the city of Ferguson.

SHAPIRO: But it wasn't enough. The court issued arrest warrants.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

HOLDER: She has been arrested twice for having unpaid tickets, and she has spent six days in jail. Yet today, she still inexplicably owes Ferguson $541. And her story is only one of dozens of similar accounts that our investigation uncovered.

THOMAS HARVEY: It confirms what our clients been telling us for years. This isn't about public safety, it's about the money.

SHAPIRO: Thomas Harvey is an attorney at ArchCity Defenders, which represents the poor and homeless in St. Louis. His group sued Ferguson last month over court and police practices.

HARVEY: The people of the community know intuitively that this isn't right 'cause that's their everyday lives. And that's what has, I believe led to and our clients believe, led to some of the hostility between police and the community.

SHAPIRO: The problem is not unique to Ferguson. Last year, NPR's investigative series Guilty and Charged found courts in all 50 states charged defendants a growing list of fines and fees, even for their public defenders and electronic monitoring bracelets. Beth Colgan is a law professor at UCLA. She's written about court fines.

BETH COLGAN: All across the country, courts are imposing fines, fees and costs on people who just simply are too poor to pay them. And so what happens next can involve arrest and incarceration, even for very minor offenses. I think the report references not mowing your lawn as an example of an offense that results in very strict penalties. And it can be a never-ending cycle that really devastates families or even whole communities as we've seen in Ferguson.

SHAPIRO: NPR recently met a family that owed on multiple tickets in Ferguson. Herbert Nelson says he had to close down his house painting business because of unpaid tickets for speeding and other traffic offenses.

HERBERT NELSON: We're not criminals. It's just driving, stuff we did while we was driving. And we're paying these big punishments. It's not fair. It's holding us back. It's like a cycle.

SHAPIRO: He's 26. His sister, Allison, is 23. She says her unpaid tickets and the arrest warrants that resulted stopped her plans to join the Navy.

ALLISON NELSON: I had been talking to my recruiter. We had took the test and everything. I passed it. I was, you know, on my way, then I got a ticket.

SHAPIRO: The Nelsons are part of a lawsuit that could force Ferguson to change. The Justice Department, too, is demanding reform and has threatened to use its power to force change if officials in Ferguson don't do enough. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.