When I went to St. Louis County, Mo., last month to report on the municipal courts system there, I left pretty overwhelmed by what I saw. (You can read my report here.) I’ve done a lot of reporting on the criminal justice system over the last 10 years or so, and the beat itself can sometimes be pretty bleak. But I don’t ever recall encountering the kind of fatalism, frustration, and despair that I saw on display in those courtrooms.

David Menschel is a criminal defense attorney and criminal justice activist based in Brooklyn who has fought wrongful convictions, corrupt prosecutors and all manner of other ills among cops, courts, prisons and prosecutors. Which is to say he’s seen some bad stuff. Last night he was in St. Louis to attend some of the local municipal courts. Judging by his Twitter feed, he too was overwhelmed by what goes on inside them.

Velda City has all of 1,400 people. It’s on the stretch of Natural Bridge Road that I wrote about in my report. Within about three square miles, you could find yourself in the towns of Velda City, Velda Village Hills, Pine Lawn, Uplands Park, Hillsdale, Beverly Hills, Normandy, Bel-Ridge, Greendale, Pasadena Hills, Vinita Park, Charlack and Hanley Hills. There may be others. 

 

From what I was told, in most of these courts, anyone with an attorney gets to go first. The objective there is to not waste the time of the attorneys. That’s an understandable aim, but it means poorer people sit and wait. I was also told, as Menschel observed, that the vast majority of the people who end up in these courts are poor and go unrepresented. Without an attorney, you’re more likely to pay more in fines, and less likely get charges dismissed.

  Indeed, some municipal court judges are prosecutors in other municipalities.

 

Occupancy permits are just one of the myriad ways in which these municipalities can sap funds from poor people. Basically, if you live in St. Louis County, you’re required to get one for your residents. It doesn’t matter if you rent or own. The police can then periodically make compliance checks (although generally they conduct these checks after they’ve been called to a residence for another reason, like a noise complaint or domestic dispute). If there are more people in your place than your permit allows, they can fine you and each person in your home. Attorneys I spoke to say the regulation can end up being a way to enforce antiquated local laws against unmarried cohabitation, and judging by comments you sometimes hear in courtrooms or from local officials, a way for police and prosecutors to essentially fine people for having premarital sex. You can probably guess which communities are most likely to be subjected to these occupancy inspections.

 

If you’ve read my report, you might remember that Bel-Ridge is the town of 2,700 people that in its budget said it planned to make about $450 this year for every resident. It’s also the town that fined residents for not subscribing to the only authorized municipal trash service, and that in the early 2000s was caught manually changing a green light to red in order to nab unsuspecting motorists. The town is 83 percent black.

In another Tweet, Menschel says the courtrooms feel like revenue factories. This was my impression, too. The courts felt like assembly lines of despair. It’s important to remember that the protests in Ferguson are about much more than whatever happened between Officer Darren Wilson and Mike Brown. They’re the product of a geography and system of municipal government that were unquestionably built on a foundation of racism. St. Louis County is overloaded with municipalities because white people kept creating new towns in their efforts to get away from black people. Now those towns have courthouses, police departments and a host of civil servants. All of them have to be paid. And extracting fines from people has become a critical way to raise the revenue to pay them. The poorer the municipality, the more reliant it will be on municipal court revenue. The poorer the citizen, the less likely it is that they can find an attorney to help them negotiate the paperwork labyrinth of local ordinances, confusingly worded court notices, and dozens and dozens of courthouses, each with their own rules and hours.

Pundits and commentators have suggested that these concerns are all overblown. After all, who could object to car registration laws, insurance requirements or speed limits? (For a well-argued but I think ultimately flawed example, see Heather Mac Donald from the Manhattan Institute here.)

This all misses the point. When a local government’s very existence depends on its citizens breaking the law — when fines from ordinance violations are written into city budgets for the upcoming year as a primary or even the main expected source of revenue — the relationship between the government and the governed is not one of public officials serving their constituents, but of preying off of them. When the primary mission of a police department isn’t to protect citizens but to extract money from them, and when the cops themselves don’t look like, live near or have much in common with the people from whom they’re extracting that money, you get cops who start to see the people they’re supposed to be serving not as citizens with rights, but as potential sources of revenue, as lawbreakers to be caught. The residents of these towns then see cops not as public servants drawn from their own community to enforce the laws and keep the peace, but as outsiders brought in to harass them, whose salaries are drawn from that harassment. The same goes for the judges and prosecutors, who also rarely live in the towns that employ them.

The critics who ask questions like “What’s the harm in enforcing speed limits?” either overlook or are unaware of the absurdity of the occupancy permits, or fines for seat-belt violations, or the use of business permits to harass struggling business owners, such as the case of Antonio Morgan in my report. These criticisms also overlook the fact that when police and public officials have such strong incentives to aggressively enforce petty municipal violations, there will be a strong temptation to skirt the law. The stoplight manipulation in Bel-Ridge is a good example. But a more common example frequently mentioned to me by attorneys in the area is the frequency with which someone will get pulled over and fined for driving without proof of insurance, driving without registration, driving with a suspended license, or all three, but with no citation for a moving violation. The question then becomes, why was this person pulled over in the first place? The unfortunate answer is that he or she looked like someone who might lack insurance, registration or a valid license. Which is to say he or she looked poor. Being poor in St. Louis County not only means that they’re less able to pay for and follow all of these rules and regulations, because the poor are less able to do all of that, but also that they’re more likely to be targeted and harassed even if they have followed all the rules. And as any honest cop will tell you, once an officer has pulled you over, he can always find some reason to fine you.

All of which is to say that the problem here goes much deeper than racist cops or vitriolic protesters. Whether you believe Darren Wilson and side with his defenders, or you believe Michael Brown was murdered and you side with the protesters, you should want to fix St. Louis County. Figuring out what actually happened on that afternoon in Ferguson is important, but it isn’t nearly as important as what the incident has come to represent, however imperfect the representation. Police shootings happen everywhere. Questionable police shootings of unarmed suspects happen everywhere. Questionable police shootings of unarmed black suspects happen everywhere. Yet we’ve never seen a sustained protest like this.

This isn’t as much about a police shooting as it is about the release of residual anger over an antagonistic system of governing that virtually requires its poorest citizens to live in misery and despair. Black residents identify with Michael Brown because odds are, many black residents have been harassed by police for jaywalking, wearing “saggy pants” or generally looking suspicious. You needn’t believe that all cops are racist to understand why that happens. If you’re a white cop in a town that’s 90 percent black, and your main job is to fine people for petty infractions, nearly all the people you cite for petty infractions are going to be black. If Bel-Ridge wasn’t collecting the equivalent of $450 in fines each year for each of the town’s residents, the town of Bel-Ridge probably wouldn’t exist. If the town of Pine Lawn weren’t issuing so many citations that its court now has the equivalent five outstanding arrest warrants for every resident, or Country Club Hills weren’t issuing so many that it has 26 per resident, those towns would probably evaporate, too. When a government’s operational budget relies on fines for inconsequential offenses, poor people will be disproportionately unable to pay those fines, or to pay an attorney to get them out of paying them. And when the repercussions of not paying them include a suspended license, more fines and, eventually, the constant fear of an imminent arrest, it becomes nearly impossible for them to maintain a job, shuttle kids to child care, get an education, obtain housing — basically to function as a human being. You not only make it extraordinarily difficult to escape the cycle of poverty, you remove from people any hope of ever escaping it.

This is what St. Louis County government is built upon. And this is what needs to be changed.