In Ferguson, Court Fines And Fees Fuel Anger The protests in Ferguson are a response to the shooting death of Michael Brown, but the heavy use of court fines and fees helps explain why there's so much anger directed at local police.
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In Ferguson, Court Fines And Fees Fuel Anger

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In Ferguson, Court Fines And Fees Fuel Anger

In Ferguson, Court Fines And Fees Fuel Anger

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Shortly after Michael Brown was shot and killed, a new report singled out Ferguson. It said the city charges high court fines and fees for nonviolent offenses such as traffic violations and then arrests people when they don't pay. That's an issue nationwide. We told you about it a few months ago in a series we called "Guilty And Charged."

NPR's Joseph Shapiro explains this practice is also one cause of the distrust of police in Ferguson.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Thomas Harvey started Arch City Defenders to provide legal services to the poor in St. Louis and the nearby communities. He's the lead author of the new report.

THOMAS HARVEY: These are what we call the poverty, in quote, "crimes."

SHAPIRO: Typically, he says someone gets stopped for a rolling stop at a stop sign, or for broken tail light and then police find other problems.

HARVEY: It's driving while suspended, no proof of insurance and failure to register a vehicle.

SHAPIRO: The court costs can add up to hundreds, even thousands of dollars.

HARVEY: And folks have the impression that this is a form of low-level harassment that isn't about public safety, it's about money.

SHAPIRO: The Arch City Defenders report argues this resentment is justified, especially in Ferguson. Last year Ferguson collected $2.6 million in court fines and fees. It was the city's second-biggest source of income. Then, going to court in Ferguson creates more anger. The new report says that the courtroom in Ferguson gets so crowded that judges will lock the doors just five minutes after court begins. Sometimes people show up late. They can't get in so they leave. But then, they're counted as missing court and a warrant might get issued for their arrest.

Last Friday people stood in line at the Ferguson Police Department to pay off traffic fines. Ebony, who is 36, took off early from work to figure out payment on fines and fees that have grown to nearly $2,000 for various traffic violations. She asked that we use just her first name because she says she fears retaliation. She told NPR's Brakkton Booker that she's been arrested before, after she didn't pay off all her fines - the last time just two weeks after she'd given birth.

EBONY: My son was two weeks old and I was under doctor's care and Ferguson still locked me up and left me in jail for a week, over traffic signals. Even when my lawyer was calling and saying that I'm under doctor's care, I just had a baby; and they still didn't care.

SHAPIRO: We called police and city officials in Ferguson but didn't get a response.

There are so many people in St. Louis County with arrest warrants for unpaid fines and fees on nonviolent offenses, that once a year, every August, local police departments working with a community group allow thousands of people to get those arrest warrants dropped. Then they can ask to pay off their fines and fees on a payment plan. This year Ebony got that ticket amnesty. But, she knows if she falls behind again on paying her fines and fees there could be a new arrest warrant. So residents are cynical. They see the fines as just a way for the city to make money, for things like the brand-new brick and glass police headquarters Ebony stands in front of.

EBONY: If I don't pay on the day or before, I get a whole other warrant and the money that I used don't go against anything. It goes to this - it goes to this new building.

SHAPIRO: The amnesty program was started by a community organization, Better Family Life. Malik Ahmed is the founder. He explains how the amnesty began after the group's job training program ran into a surprising barrier.

MALIK AHMED: What we found was that when we got them jobs, maybe one or two days after they were hired, they were back in our office saying that they couldn't go out to where the job was located.

SHAPIRO: The issue? Often the person had an arrest warrant for those unpaid fines for driving violations. So they were afraid to leave their neighborhoods because a police officer who stopped them would find that arrest warrant and they knew they'd go to jail.

AHMED: It's a risk to go to the store outside of that community. It's a risk to go to any educational institution, to get a job, to go for job interviews - especially since most of the jobs are maybe five to 10 miles away - so some of them just don't even try anymore.

SHAPIRO: Earlier this month about 3,000 people lined up at a local community college to get those arrest warrants dropped. One campus was in Ferguson, just a short distance from where Michael Brown was shot.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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