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The cold, hard cash at the heart of Ferguson's out-of-control justice system

A man holds up a sign while protesting the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
A man holds up a sign while protesting the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Scott Olson

Ferguson, Missouri, doesn't have a particularly high crime rate, but that's not readily apparent when looking at the city's high levels of law enforcement. In 2013, the Ferguson Municipal Court resolved three warrants and 1.5 cases per household, according to a new report from ArchCity Defenders.

How is it possible to have so many cases? The simple answer is for-profit policing, as The New School's Jeff Smith explained in a previous interview. "These municipalities are not well-funded, they don't have big tax bases, and a lot of the shopping centers, movie theaters, and big stores have gone out of businesses. Consequently, they're strapped for cash," Smith said. "As a result, places like Ferguson get almost a quarter of their municipal budget from traffic-related fines. Other places have even higher percentages."

The ArchCity Defenders' report supports this point. It found fines and court fees are the city's second largest source of revenue, making up $2.6 million, or about 10 percent of Ferguson's 2013 budget.

ArchCity Defenders calculated that at an 80 percent conviction rate, the average guilty verdict costs $275. That's hundreds of dollars per household.

It's worth noting that this big cost is being placed on a city with major economic troubles. Ferguson's unemployment rate, for instance, is 14.3 percent, more than double than St. Louis County (6.1 percent) and Missouri (6.6 percent).

The evidence also shows that this cost more often applies to Ferguson's black residents than their white counterparts. A racial profiling report from Missouri's attorney general found that, although black people make up about 67 percent of Ferguson's population, they're involved in about 86 percent of police stops.

"Many will tell us, they feel that it's driving while black in their own community," Thomas Harvey, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, previously told Vox's Sarah Kliff. "They feel like they're being harassed and it creates this constant low level of stress."

Taking all these factors together, it's much easier to understand why the people of Ferguson are so outraged. For them, the shooting of Michael Brown really was the last straw.

To learn more about the problems in Ferguson, read Sarah Kliff's interview with the executive director of ArchCity Defenders, the full explainer, the full timeline, and watch the two-minute video below:


Hat tip to Marginal Revolution and Gene Demby for pointing out the stats and report.