FERGUSON HAS become more than a municipality near St. Louis: The name is synonymous with the renewed debate about race, policing, poverty and inequality that the nation has engaged in since the death of African American teenager Michael Brown. Some in that debate have been loud and counterproductive voices, others remarkably constructive. Surely in the latter category is the Ferguson Commission, a panel Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) appointed to conduct a “thorough, wide-ranging and unflinching study of the social and economic conditions that impede progress, equality and safety in the St. Louis region.” The results, released last week, offer a blueprint to improve life not only in Ferguson and elsewhere around St. Louis, but also in many places where underprivileged communities are mistreated or neglected.
In its report, the commission did not dwell on the incident that sparked last summer’s uproar: Mr. Brown’s shooting by police officer Darren Wilson. In that case, an independent Justice Department investigation found insufficient cause to charge him.
Instead, it focused on the many legitimate grievances that primed the community to explode. The commissioners explained how dozens of tiny municipalities, each with its own police force and municipal court, waste public money on duplicative expenses and provide terrible service, which can result in people rotting in jail while they wait to appear before a judge. To keep themselves afloat, these mini-governments often resort to sucking revenue out of vulnerable people with fines, penalties and detentions that grind down the poor.
At the least, police training should be improved and centralized, ensuring some consistency and quality, stressing that force should be a last resort and that tickets don’t exist to raise revenue. Even better would be to merge St. Louis County’s 60 police forces and 81 municipal courts into bigger units. A system that traps people in cycles of debt and imprisonment for things such as driving with expired tags must be reformed. The commissioners recommend using penalties such as community service more often and establishing legal assistance centers that guide people through an often-confounding process, offering them ways to pay or work off tickets while avoiding jail time. Police should have clear guidelines on handling protests, including prohibitions on arresting journalists who are just doing their jobs. Officials should properly collect statistics on police use of force, and local police and prosecutors should not investigate themselves when force is used.
The commission’s investigation ranged well beyond criminal justice, recommending actions such as limiting predatory payday lending at exorbitant interest rates, improving bus rapid transit and expanding Medicaid coverage. These are sensible ways to improve people’s lives, and many would cost state and local governments little.
Now it’s up to Missouri’s leaders — and those of other jurisdictions with similar challenges — to heed the advice.