“Offender-Funded Justice”: The Economics Of Police Militarism
Two crucial battles broke out in Ferguson, Missouri, this week. The first began with the public airing of sorrow and rage after the death of the eighteen-year-old Michael Brown, who was shot by a police officer, on Canfield Court, in the St. Louis suburb, at 2:15 P.M. last Saturday. Then came the local law enforcement’s rejoinder to the early round of protests. Officers rolled in with a fleet of armored vehicles, sniper rifles, and tear-gas cannisters, reinserting the phrase “the militarization of policing” into the collective conscience. The tactical missteps by the town’s police leadership have been a thing to behold. (They’re also to be expected; anyone doubting as much should pick up Radley Balko’s “The Rise of the Warrior Cop.”)
One moment, we see a young man with a welt from a rubber bullet between his eyes; the next, three officers with big guns are charging at another black man who has his hands up. On Thursday, Jelani Cobb filed a powerful account from the sidewalks and homes of Ferguson. Cobb asks about “the intertwined economic and law-enforcement issues underlying the protests,” including, for instance, the court fees that many people in Ferguson face, which often begin with minor infractions and eventually become “their own, escalating, violations.” “We have people who have warrants because of traffic tickets and are effectively imprisoned in their homes,” Malik Ahmed, the C.E.O. of an organization called Better Family Life, told Cobb. “They can’t go outside because they’ll be arrested. In some cases, people actually have jobs but decide that the threat of arrest makes it not worth trying to commute outside their neighborhood.”
The crisis of criminal-justice debt is just one of the many tributaries feeding the river of deep rage in Ferguson. But it’s an important one—both because it’s so ubiquitous and because it’s easily overlooked in the spectacular shadow of tanks and turrets. Earlier this year, I spent six months reporting on the rise of profiteering in American courts, which happens by way of the proliferation of fees and fines for very minor offenses—part of a growing movement toward what’s known as offender-funded justice. Private companies play an aggressive role in collecting these fees in certain states. (Often, this tactic is aimed at the poor with unpaid traffic tickets.) The reports from Ferguson raise questions about how militarization and economic coercion feed a shared anger.
Missouri was one of the first states to allow private probation companies, in the late nineteen-eighties, and it has since followed the national trend of allowing court fees and fines to mount rapidly. Now, across much of America, what starts as a simple speeding ticket can, if you’re too poor to pay, mushroom into an insurmountable debt, padded by probation fees and, if you don’t appear in court, by warrant fees. (Often, poverty means transience—not everyone who is sent a court summons receives it.) “Across the country, impoverished people are routinely jailed for court costs they’re unable to pay,” Alec Karakatsanis, a cofounder of Equal Justice Under Law, a nonprofit civil-rights organization that has begun challenging this practice in municipal courts, said. These kinds of fines snowball when defendants’ cases are turned over to for-profit probation companies for collection, since the companies charge their own “supervision” fees. What happens when people fall behind on their payments? Often, police show up at their doorsteps and take them to jail.
From there, the snowball rolls. “Going to jail has huge impacts on people at the edge of poverty,” Sara Zampieren, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, told me. “They lose their job, they lose custody of their kids, they get behind on their home-foreclosure payments,” the sum total of which, she said, is “devastating.” While in prison, “user fees” often accumulate, so that, even after you leave, you’re not quite free. A recent state-by-state survey conducted by NPR showed that in at least forty-three states defendants can be billed for their own public defender, a service to which they have a Constitutional right; in at least forty-one states, inmates can be charged for room and board in jail and prison.
America’s militarized police forces now have some highly visible tools at their disposal, some of which have been in the spotlight this week: machine guns, night-vision equipment, military-style vehicles, and a seemingly endless amount of ammo. But the economic arm of police militarization is often far less visible, and offender-funded justice is part of this sub-arsenal. The fears that Cobb and Ahmed describe—court debts that lead to warrants and people who are afraid to leave their homes as a result—compound the force that can be wielded during raids or protests like those on the streets of Missouri. Debtors’ fears change their daily lives—can they go to the grocery story or drive a child to school without being detained? “It deters people who have legitimate problems from calling the police, and removes the police’s ability to do what they’re supposed to be doing—helping people in the community respond to emergencies,” Karakatsanis said. It erodes the community’s trust in and coöperation with law enforcement.
In Alabama, Equal Justice Under Law has filed a class-action lawsuit against the city of Montgomery on behalf of minor offenders who have been jailed for debt; their challenge is pending and the city refutes the allegations, but, Karakatsanis says, at least thirty-five people were released from jail for their court debts since the suit was filed. (A judge has issued a preliminary injunction that leans in favor of the debtors.) More often than not, though, plaintiffs who face overwhelming municipal-court debts never get a shot at a legal challenge. Instead, their problem often compounds their resentment and their disinvestment in authority.
Several years ago, I embedded with U.S. troops in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and spent time with a unit that was tasked with implementing the directives from a set of trainings known as “Commander’s Guide to Money as a Weapons System.” The trainings instruct troops in how to use economic tools to further military objectives, and there is a warning printed in the opening pages of one such field manual: “Warfighters and their leaders must ensure their actions will stand up to a Congressional inquiry and must not cause embarrassment to the Department of Defense.” Here, “real” militarism has one advantage over its domestic counterpart, at least doctrinally—the principle is genuine investment in communities where the military hopes to earn trust and influence. Unsurprisingly, it has proved complicated to implement (and has often failed wildly), but, at least in theory, it is far more graceful than police officers or the military blasting their way across human terrain. Here at home, SWAT teams continue to tear down the proverbial power lines.
In a sign of hope, the new commander in Ferguson, Captain Ron Johnson, of the Missouri State Highway Patrol (who grew up in Ferguson), immediately seemed to grasp this issue when he assumed leadership on Thursday. “We all want justice. We all want answers,” he told the Associated Press. “It means a lot to me personally that we break this cycle of violence.”
In reckoning with police militarization, the economic side of the phenomenon should be considered. The connection may not be obvious to those who’ve never had the gas or water or electricity in their homes shut off. But these forces operate in tandem—the tear gas and the tickets; the weaponry and the warrants—compromising a wide range of fundamental rights that seem, in Ferguson and beyond, to have gone up in smoke.
By: Sarah Stillman, The New Yorker, August 15, 2014
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