See, it’s not just Ferguson. This is a pattern all over the country:
In California, a driver who commits offenses as minor as driving without a seatbelt or littering faces a $490 fine, according to a new report by a coalition of civil rights groups, entitled “Not Just a Ferguson Problem: How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California.” Worse, if the driver, who may not be able to afford to pay such a fine, does not pay it off quickly enough or fails to appear in court, the consequence is a suspended license – a consequence that prevents them from driving to work to earn the money they need to pay off their fine. The result is a Catch-22, where the only way to raise the money to gain back their license to drive is to drive without a license and risk even more fines for doing so.
This predicament mirrors law enforcement practices in Ferguson that were exposed by the Department of Justice in March. Before the DOJ revealed patterns of egregious racial profiling and discrimination in the city, a group of civil rights attorneys filed a lawsuit claiming municipal courts in Ferguson were arresting and jailing an alarming number of people for unpaid traffic violations and other minor offenses. In 2013 alone, 33,000 arrest warrants were issued for Ferguson residents and people living in nearby counties, as courts raked in $2.6 million. But before the lawsuit was filed, most people weren’t aware of the egregious amounts of debt incurred from court fees each year.
Sadly, Ferguson isn’t the only place in America with a court system that thrives off of poor people’s debts. In California, four million people possess suspended licenses for failing to pay traffic citations — many of which have nothing to do with driving — and are subsequently thrust into a hole of debt they cannot climb out of.