Last month, I posted a long investigation of how the 80-plus municipal courts and 90-plus municipalities in St. Louis County, Mo., profit from poverty by extracting money from residents for minor infractions such as moving violations, occupancy permit violations, business permit violations and code violations. It’s a system built on a history of racial discrimination, one that supports far too many towns and the public officials who work for them considering the size of the county, and one that makes the survival of some of those towns contingent on issuing an extraordinary number of citations, arrest warrants and fines.
The system weighs most heavily on the poor, who are less likely to have legal representation. Those without attorneys are more likely to be swept into the cycle of accumulating fines and arrest warrants. And of course, those fines and court costs amount to a much higher proportion of a poor person’s income. Compounding all of this, most municipalities in the county derive most of their revenue from a sales tax. Poorer towns are less likely to generate revenue from a sales tax. That makes them more reliant on the municipal courts for revenue.
Now the nonprofit organization Better Together has put out a report offering a lot more detail on all of this. As the name suggests, Better Together advocates merging the city of St. Louis with St. Louis County, or at least merging many of the services between the two entities. In the past the group has been more about producing data and research than advocating explicit policies, although this report does more of the latter. The group’s data and work also suggest support for the idea of merging or eliminating a good number of St. Louis County’s tiny towns.
The report begins with an overview of the problem:
Missouri’s framework for municipal-court oversight provides administrative power to a presiding judge in each of the forty-five circuit courts of Missouri. While this mechanism for oversight appears sound, in a highly fragmented region such as St. Louis County, it becomes completely untenable due to the sheer number of courts.
To put this in perspective: A judicial circuit in Missouri contains 8.6 municipal court divisions on average. St. Louis County’s circuit contains 81 municipal court divisions. So, the presiding judge of St. Louis County’s circuit courts must oversee nearly ten times the number of courts and judges as an average presiding judge in Missouri. This significant flaw in the oversight structure manifests itself in a number of problems.
One such problem is the prolific collection of court fines and fees in the St. Louis region. In 2013, the municipal courts of St. Louis City and County collected $61,152,087 in fines and fees. During that same time, the combined total of court fines and fees collected by Missouri municipal courts was $132,032,351.63. This means that the municipal courts in the St. Louis region accounted for 46% of all fines and fees collected statewide, despite being home to only 22% of Missourians.
Further analysis revealed that St. Louis City accounts for 5% of Missouri’s population and 7% of municipal fines collected statewide, while unincorporated St. Louis County accounts for roughly 5% of Missouri’s population and 5% of Missouri’s municipal fines and fees revenue. This seems logical. However, while the combined populations of the 90 municipalities in St. Louis County accounts for only 11% of Missouri’s population, those municipalities bring in 34% of all municipal fines and fees statewide ($45,136,416 in 2013).
Municipal courts are used most frequently as a revenue stream in municipalities north of Olive Boulevard and within the boundary of I-270. In fact, 20 of the 21 municipalities that derive at least 20% of their general budget from fines and fees are located in that geographic area.
Now have a look at this map, created by data visualization artist Eric Fischer. (If you aren’t familiar with the city, that’s the Mississippi river in the middle. St. Louis is to the west, East St. Louis and Illinois to the east.) Using census data, Fischer plotted the city’s racial makeup. Each blue dot represents 25 black people. Each red dot represents 25 white people. The east-west boundary between the two colors essentially runs along Olive Boulevard, at least until it ends in the Central West End neighborhood. The boundary then generally follows Delmar Boulevard into the city.
Here’s more on the disparity:
Financial and demographic data revealed that, on average, these municipalities were bringing in one-third of their general operating revenue from fines and fees. Their populations were on average 62% black, with 22% of their citizens below the poverty line. In comparison, St. Louis County as a whole is 24% black with 11% of its population below the poverty line. When combined with the Attorney General’s finding in the “Executive Summary for 2013 Missouri Vehicle Stops” that black drivers were 66 percent more likely than white drivers to be stopped, it becomes all too clear that fines and fees are paid disproportionately by the African-American community. In other words, these municipalities’ method of financial survival – bringing in revenue via fines and fees – comes primarily at the expense of black citizens.
The report found that on average, the municipal courts in the county brought in about three times what it cost them to operate. The average “profit,” about a half million dollars per town, went to the towns’ operating budgets. Under Missouri law, no municipality can bring in more than 30 percent of its revenue from municipal courts. That rather sensible law would seem to be a nod to the dangers of allowing government’s operating costs to become too reliant on fines and citations. When a government’s operations are contingent on fining citizens, governing becomes less about serving citizens and more about finding ways to fine citizens to fund the government.
But several municipalities are routinely violating the 30 percent law, and some rather egregiously. Better Together found 14 cities where the municipal court was the primary source of revenue in 2013. As the report explains, “Without revenue from fines and fees it is inconceivable that these communities could afford to operate.”
In Calverton Park, for example, about a fourth of the residents live below the poverty line — and 66 percent of the town’s revenue comes from fines issued and collected by its court. In Pine Lawn, which I visited for my original report, nearly a third of residents are below the poverty line, and nearly half the revenue comes from the court. In Normandy, it’s 35 percent below the poverty line and 41 percent revenue from fines, court fees and citations.
It’s also worth noting that because the county lacks reliable public transportation and because these towns can be so small, even a drive to the nearest grocery store could take you through several revenue-hungry towns, much less a daily commute into the city. And as has widely been reported, according to a report from the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, blacks in St. Louis County are pulled over at rates that far exceed their proportion of the population. They’re also more likely to be searched, even though white motorists are more likely to have contraband. If you’re more likely to be stopped, you’re more likely to be fined. In other words, even in towns that don’t have high poverty rates, the people in the municipal courts are still likely to be disproportionately poor and disproportionately black.
The report includes a number of other disturbing details:
- Nearly all these towns have become so reliant on fines from petty infractions that they incorporate the projected revenue into their annual budgets. In other words, they expect their municipal courts to generate revenue well above operating costs. When your operating revenue depends on your citizens committing petty infractions, you run into a number of temptations, none of them consistent with good governing. You’ll be tempted to put a higher priority on policing for those infractions than, say, a style of policing that may be better for public safety but unlikely to generate the same sort of revenue. You’ll be tempted to “find” crimes where none existed or to create crimes by passing vaguely worded ordinances that can be broadly interpreted. In short, you have a government with the strongest of incentives (its very existence) to look at its citizens not as constituents to be served, but as potential lawbreakers.
- In some towns, it’s even worse: The report found towns that actually projected significant revenue increases from their municipal courts in their annual budgets, meaning these towns planned to fund new projects or cover budget shortfalls by issuing more fines and citations. Dellwood, for example, projected a nearly 200 percent increase in municipal court revenue between 2011 and 2013. This is difficult to explain. Did Dellwood officials have advance knowledge of some sort of impending petty crime wave? Perhaps a town could make such a prediction if it had reason to think its population would double, too. But Dellwood is actually losing population. The simplest and most plausible explanation is that the town planned to find new ways to fine and cite people. But that a town could simply decide to double its revenue from traffic fines in the coming year, and then double it again the year after, reveals just how arbitrary these laws can be, either in their content, how they’re enforced or both — and how they’re enforced has very little to do with public safety, highway safety or quality of life.
- In one striking table looking at the towns of Ferguson and St. John, Better Together illustrates that as the towns got poorer (using assessed property values as a proxy), the revenue generated from their municipal courts grew proportionately.
- The state law capping municipal court revenue at 30 percent has no real enforcement mechanism. It requires the towns themselves to report their own violations and to turn the excess over to a fund for the county’s schools. And so although according to their own public financial records eight towns violated the law in 2013 alone, Better Together’s inquiries to the state of Missouri found zero towns in excess of the cap, with no contributions to the schools fund.
So far, a couple of towns and the city of St. Louis have offered amnesty for outstanding warrants. (Other towns have offered similar amnesties in the past.) There has also been some talk about offering more legal representation for defendants in municipal court. But neither of these policies really get at the root of the problem.
The Better Together report offers a number of more substantive ideas. The most controversial of these might be to not only add oversight and an enforcement mechanism to the state law capping municipal court revenue, but also to lower the cap itself from 30 to 10 percent.
Ideally, any town that lacks a sufficient tax base to exist would either dissolve or look to merge with neighboring towns. But that would require the town councils to vote themselves out of a stipend and some power. If a town must perpetually fine its citizens in order to survive, perhaps it shouldn’t survive. Lowering the cap would force these towns either to operate on legitimate revenue sources, such as property and sales taxes and permit fees, or risk insolvency. It could get messy before it gets better. One could see some towns piling up massive amounts of debt before finally calling it quits. But maybe that’s what needs to happen.
The report also recommends turning outstanding fines over to collection agencies rather than issuing arrest warrants. That, too, will probably strike some people as controversial. The primary goals of reform ought to be to reduce the need for all of these fees in the first place; to prompt an audit of these towns’ codes and ordinances to eliminate unnecessary, overly vague and anachronistic laws; and to be sure the laws are being enforced fairly, equitably and primarily to promote public safety, not to generate revenue. Judges and prosecutors should be instructed to work and negotiate with defendants who can’t pay — and not just those who have attorneys. But even in an ideal system, there will be people legitimately fined who refuse to pay or who continue to rack up fines that they can’t pay. Turning those cases over to a collection agency with some appropriate debtor safeguards would certainly be preferable to throwing those people in jail.
One final point: This report is a good reminder that the fallout from Ferguson goes well beyond the death of Michael Brown. The geography of St. Louis County (and I’m sure it isn’t limited to St. Louis) was created by a half century of abhorrent formal and informal policies, including segregation, restrictive covenants, redlining and racially coded zoning. The problems spawned by that system predate Darren Wilson and Michael Brown by decades. Last week’s grand jury leaks seem to offer some support for those who have said Wilson’s shooting was justified. I don’t have enough information about the altercation to have an opinion on what happened or on whether Wilson should be indicted.
But these protests have gone on much longer than a typical protest over a police shooting. And that’s because Brown’s death has become a metaphor for all of this. Perhaps we’ll learn that it’s a flawed metaphor. But that doesn’t make it any less real. Antonio Morgan, one of the residents of St. Louis County I profiled in my report, told me back in August that the protests were more about the daily harassment black people endure in these towns. “For so long, nobody has listened to them,” Morgan said. “That’s what they’re angry about. That’s why they’re lashing out.” Nicole Bolden, another woman I profiled, said something similar: “It’s been a long time coming. Ferguson, Dillard, Florissant. Are no white folks speeding or running red lights in these towns? … Nobody knows what happened that day with Michael Brown and that officer. [But] what happens every day around here is worse. It doesn’t matter if you’re walking or driving. You’re a target. Rioting isn’t right. But they just want people to know what’s happening.”
When stories like this flare up, we tend to put ourselves fully on one side or the other and view everyone else as either with us, on the right side, or as an opponent, on the wrong one. But one can disagree with the protesters’ characterization of the Brown shooting — either from the start, after the most recent leak or at some point in the future — and still understand the anger and resentment at a system that for decades has pitted cops against residents, and local governments against the governed.
Most legal experts I’ve informally polled say an indictment of Wilson seems unlikely, and a conviction even less so. But even if we were to learn tomorrow of some newly discovered video that incontrovertibly showed the shooting to be justified, it wouldn’t change the fact that poverty has essentially been criminalized in St. Louis County.
The protests that followed the Brown shooting also spawned larger discussions about the use of police cameras, and of police militarization and the proper way to respond to protests. This, too, is healthy. And these issues will persist regardless of what we learn in the coming weeks about Darren Wilson and Michael Brown and regardless of what the grand jury decides to do.
Ideally, those who are skeptical of Brown’s innocence will still appreciate the larger issues and injustices his shooting has illuminated and will embrace opportunity to address them. Also ideally, those who are certain of Brown’s innocence will welcome them.
If these things do not happen, it will be a tragically wasted opportunity.