Radley Balko at the WaPo has an absolutely exhaustive story on the myriad ways that cities and towns around St. Louis have effectively criminalized being poor — and especially being poor and black. The police seek out people with older cars, charge them with some random violation, the driver can't get off work to go to court, and the next time the cops pull them over they arrest them until they pay fines, penalties, court costs, you name it. It's a racket, plain and simple, and it's exactly the kind of thing that happens when you convince people that communities can run just fine by cutting taxes over and over. The money's gotta come from somewhere — might as well take it from the poorest people in town!
There are 90 municipalities in St. Louis County, and more in the surrounding counties. All but a few have their own police force, mayor, city manager and town council, and 81 have their own municipal court. To put that into perspective, consider Jackson County, Mo., which surrounds Kansas City. It is geographically larger than St. Louis County and has about two-thirds the population. Yet Jackson County has just 19 municipalities, and just 15 municipal courts — less than a quarter of municipalities and courts in St. Louis County.
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. In a white paper released last month (PDF), the ArchCity Defenders found a large group of people outside the courthouse in Bel-Ridge who had been fined for not subscribing to the town's only approved garbage collection service. They hadn't been fined for having trash on their property, only for not paying for the only legal method the town had designated for disposing of trash.
"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.