Why the Poor #CantBreathe

How the “Justice” System Squeezes the Poor for Revenue to the Point of Economic Suffocation

Conservatives like to moan about the poor not paying the taxes they “benefit” from. And libertarians like to correctly point out all the ways in which the poor are actually debilitated and harmed by such “benefits.” What both often miss, however, is that the poor in America are taxed heavily, if irregularly. When the poor are mulcted, it is just not called “taxation,” but instead “fines” and “fees”; and the collection is not handled by the I.R.S, but by the local “justice” system.

In fact, the biggest “welfare queens” in any given municipality are not the “underclass,” as conservatives would have it, but rather the affluent cops, judges, prosecutors, and other officers of the court (so lauded by conservatives as “upstanding pillars of the community”) who parasitically subsist on revenue largely extracted from the local poor.

Take, for example, St. Louis County in Missouri. As Radley Balko wrote in his outstanding Washington Post report from September, “How municipalities in St. Louis County, Mo., profit from poverty”:

“Some of the towns in St. Louis County can derive 40 percent or more of their annual revenue from the petty fines and fees collected by their municipal courts. A majority of these fines are for traffic offenses, but they can also include fines for fare-hopping on MetroLink (St. Louis’s light rail system), loud music and other noise ordinance violations, zoning violations for uncut grass or unkempt property, violations of occupancy permit restrictions, trespassing, wearing ‘saggy pants,’ business license violations and vague infractions such as ‘disturbing the peace’ or ‘affray’ that give police officers a great deal of discretion to look for other violations.”

Notice the mix of Nanny State “public protection” laws (concerning traffic and business) and Broken Windows “public order” laws (uncut grass, saggy pants, etc). The left-wing Nanny State and right-wing Broken Windows policing really are two peas in a pod, as I argued in a recent essay.

As Balko informs us, town governments ruling poorer communities are especially reliant on municipal court revenue, to make up for their relative dearth of sales tax receipts, which are the other main source of revenue for towns.

St. Louis County traffic cops have become particularly adept at milking the poor through road piracy:

“Some residents say police pull them over for vague infractions like braking too often or following too closely in order to fish for more infractions like not wearing a seatbelt or failing to have the car inspected. Here too the poor get hit especially hard. Older, shabbier cars get stopped more often because police suspect they’re more likely to be driven by people who can’t afford insurance or registration fees.”

Balko relates how problematic and crippling this can be for people already having trouble making ends meet:

“‘These aren’t violent criminals,’ says Thomas Harvey, another of the three co-founders of ArchCity Defenders. ‘These are people who make the same mistakes you or I do — speeding, not wearing a seatbelt, forgetting to get your car inspected on time. The difference is that they don’t have the money to pay the fines. Or they have kids, or jobs that don’t allow them to take time off for two or three court appearances. When you can’t pay the fines, you get fined for that, too. And when you can’t get to court, you get an arrest warrant.’
Arrest warrants are also public information. They can be accessed by potential landlords or employers. So they can prevent someone from getting a job, housing, job training, loans or financial aid. ‘So they just get sucked into this vortex of debt and despair,’ Harvey says.”

These “vortices” also often involve being hamstrung by court-ordered driver’s license suspensions.

“‘St. Louis’ has a public transportation system, but it’s pretty lacking,’ says [St. Louis County lawyer Javad] Khazaeli. ‘(…)You have to keep in mind that homeless and low-income people are likely to be working retail jobs, jobs that don’t tolerate tardiness. If you can’t count on the bus to get you to your job on time, you have to drive.’”

One particular, recently famous St. Louis County town by the name of Ferguson is no exception to this phenomenon. As NPR’s Joseph Shapiro reported in August:

“Jeff Smith, an assistant professor at the New School and a former Missouri state senator from St. Louis, says Ferguson ‘facilitates a debtors prison’ because of the high number of arrest warrants that get issued when people don’t pay. When people go to jail, they sometimes lose their jobs.
‘They get caught in this downward spiral, and it happens to a lot of people. This stuff accumulates,’ he says.”

Local justice systems, in their merciless pursuit of revenue, generate an appalling number of these arrest warrants. As Shapiro reported:

“To understand some of the distrust of police that has fueled protests in Ferguson, Mo., consider this: In 2013, the municipal court in Ferguson — a city of 21,135 people — issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses, mostly driving violations.”

Balko informs us that such a ratio is quite normal for St. Louis County:

“During the protests in Ferguson, several media reports expressed alarm that there were about two arrest warrants pending in the town’s municipal court for every resident. As of June 30 of 2013, there were 23,457 arrest warrants pending in Pine Lawn Municipal Court, or about 7.3 per resident. The court brought in more than $1.8 million for the town, or around $576 per resident. That’s about 4.5 percent of the average Pine Lawn resident’s annual income. (Pine Lawn is far from the worst. The aforementioned town of Country Club Hills has over 33,000 outstanding arrest warrants, or an astonishing 26 per resident.)”

To get a sense of what it must feel like to be pushed by a revenue-ravenous “justice” system to the event horizon of a “vortex of despair,” watch the 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness. The protagonist, played by Will Smith, almost misses a life-changing internship opportunity when he is arrested over unpaid parking tickets and a local court’s “pay or stay” policy forces him to spend a night in jail. The character heroically manages to just barely snag the internship, in spite of having to go directly to the interview from jail in the painting clothes he was arrested in. His story, based on the real life story of Chris Gardner, has a happy ending, and he barely escapes his own “vortex” by the skin of his teeth. But imagine how similar scenarios must play out for the majority of people who aren’t able to muster a Hollywood speech that saves the day against all odds.

For more on “pay or stay” and the justice system’s war on the poor, listen to “Guilty and Charged,” NPR’s special series from May (before the Ferguson crisis erupted in August and started the recent wave of outrage against police and the courts).” One report from that series, also written by Joseph Shapiro, gives us some shudder-inducing peeks into the minds of unrepentant parasites (emphases added):

‘The only reason that the court is in operation and doing business at that point in time is because that defendant has come in and is a user of those services,’ says Michael Day, the administrator for the Allegan County Circuit Court [in Michigan]. ‘They don’t necessarily see themselves as a customer because, obviously, they’re not choosing to be there. But in reality they are.’ (…)
“NPR obtained a year of jail records from Benton County [in Washington state] and sampled data over a four-month period in 2013. On a typical day, about a quarter of the people who were in jail for misdemeanor offenses were there because they had failed to pay their court fines and fees.
Benton County District Court Judge Robert Ingvalson defends the county’s heavy use of fines and fees — and jail time for those who don’t pay. He says it’s needed to hold people accountable when they break laws.
If they won’t pay the money, the only thing we can take from them at that point is their time,’ Ingvalson says.”

In the reports by Balko and NPR, it is easy to discern who is the parasite and who is the host in these affairs. On one hand, for example, there is the “mass of black humanity,” as Balko puts it, flocking in like sheep to be shorn by Pine Lawn’s municipal court at 6pm on the dot, “as if someone has just rung a school bell.” On the other hand, for example, there are the double-dipping, moonlighting judges and prosecutors pulling down 5-digit supplemental incomes for a few hours of extra work per year (Balk0), the “brand-new brick-and-glass police building” in Ferguson (NPR), and the “new, larger courthouse” in nearby Florissant (Balko).

The story behind the Florissant courthouse once again shows how blatant justice-system parasitism can be.

“Until recently, the Florissant court was one of many that had barred outsiders from its proceedings. After critics like the ArchCity Defenders pointed out that this violated the Missouri Constitution, a circuit court judge ordered these towns to change their policies. Defense attorneys say some courts still haven’t gotten the message. But in Florissant, the city council had a particularly odd response to the order. Town officials claimed the old courtroom was too small to accommodate all the defendants and attorneys, plus journalists, families, and observers. In addition to moving its municipal court to a gymnasium, just last week the council voted to add a $10 fee to every ordinance violation to fund a new, larger courthouse.
After all the recent national attention on Ferguson, local attorneys are floored. ‘It’s just completely tone deaf,’ says Khazaeli. ‘They got caught violating the law. So in response they’re going to build themselves a new courthouse, and they’re going to finance it on the backs of the poor. It’s incredible.’”

“Tone-deaf” and “incredible” indeed, but it gets even worse. Earlier this month, we learned that Ferguson, in order to close its budget shortfall—caused in part by the costs associated with the police crackdown against the public response to the police shooting of Michael Brown—is now “budgeting for higher receipts from police-issued tickets.”

That’s what you call twisting the knife.

The current wave of outrage against the police is, as it should be, primarily about police brutality. But to get a full understanding of the resentment involved, one must also consider the constant, crippling, and humiliating campaign of expropriation waged by local justice systems against the poor communities they “serve.”

#ICantBreathe, the viral hashtag quoting Eric Garner’s last words as he was murdered by the NYPD, is about police brutality, but it is also an apt phrase for how the state squeezes the poor for revenue to the point of economic suffocation.

Also published at Medium.com: