How municipalities in St. Louis County, Mo., profit from poverty | The Washington Post

Wednesday, September 3, 2014 - 12:00

How municipalities in St. Louis County, Mo., profit from poverty

 September 3
 
...Some of the towns in St. Louis County can derive 40 percent or more of their annual revenue from the petty fines and fees collected by their municipal courts. A majority of these fines are for traffic offenses, but they can also include fines for fare-hopping on MetroLink (St. Louis’s light rail system), loud music and other noise ordinance violations, zoning violations for uncut grass or unkempt property, violations of occupancy permit restrictions, trespassing, wearing “saggy pants,” business license violations and vague infractions such as “disturbing the peace” or “affray” that give police officers a great deal of discretion to look for other violations. In a white paper released last month (PDF), the ArchCity Defenders found a large group of people outside the courthouse in Bel-Ridge who had been fined for not subscribing to the town’s only approved garbage collection service. They hadn’t been fined for having trash on their property, only for not paying for the only legal method the town had designated for disposing of trash.

“These aren’t violent criminals,” says Thomas Harvey, another of the three co-founders of ArchCity Defenders. “These are people who make the same mistakes you or I do — speeding, not wearing a seatbelt, forgetting to get your car inspected on time. The difference is that they don’t have the money to pay the fines. Or they have kids, or jobs that don’t allow them to take time off for two or three court appearances. When you can’t pay the fines, you get fined for that, too. And when you can’t get to court, you get an arrest warrant.”

Arrest warrants are also public information. They can be accessed by potential landlords or employers. So they can prevent someone from getting a job, housing, job training, loans or financial aid. “So they just get sucked into this vortex of debt and despair,” Harvey says.

The death of Michael Brown at the hands of Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson in August and the ensuing protests, crackdowns and violence have drawn lots of attention to St. Louis County, and spawned lots of discussions about issues like race and racism, police brutality, poverty, police shootings, police militarization and the relationship between police departments and the communities they serve.

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