STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The saying goes that bringing heat is different from shedding light. There were both last night in Ferguson, Missouri.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting, unintelligible).
INSKEEP: The city council met for the first time since a police officer shot Michael Brown. People in the crowd chanted Brown's name. One speaker identified himself only as a representative of the unarmed 18-year-old.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Enough is enough. We're sleepless at night. I sat there and watched Mike Brown, my Mike, Big Mike, on the ground. And it wasn't him no more. It was one of my sons. It was my cousin. It was me.
INSKEEP: That was the heat. Now here's the light. Council members discussed a surprising source of tension in Ferguson. It's a long-running problem that alienates the authorities from the community they're supposed to serve. The law enforcement system imposes heavy court fees. Poor people who cannot pay those fees can end up in jail. This is actually a problem across the country, as NPR's Joe Shapiro recently reported on this program. It is a modern-day version of debtor's prisons. And Joe Shapiro now tells us the attention in Ferguson could inspire change.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Here are just a few of the fees the city court can bill you for in Ferguson, Missouri. There's a fee to plead guilty; that's $12. You even pay for your own arrest warrant.
ALEXES HARRIS: There's charges for - the sheriff can charge you for the mileage that it costs them to serve a bench warrant.
SHAPIRO: Alexes Harris got on her computer and pulled up Ferguson's municipal code. Harris is a sociology professor at the University of Washington. And she's just written a book about how, across the country, court fines and fees are used more and more to fund government but fall heavily on the poorest people.
HARRIS: They should not be charged for the city government services. They should not be seen as a revenue-generating entity if they are poor.
SHAPIRO: Each fee may not seem like a lot. But there are at least a dozen in Ferguson, and they add up. Plus, they're on top of court fines, which in Ferguson typically run a few hundred or even a thousand dollars. And we're talking about low-level, nonviolent offenses - mostly traffic violations or jumping on the light rail public transportation without paying for a ticket. Ferguson collected $2.6 million dollars in court fines and fees last year. That was the city's second-largest source of income, or about 21 percent of its total budget. The city council's proposals last night could end some of those fees. Council members said they wanted to make it clear that the city is not imposing fines to harass residents or to finance the city government, but attorney Thomas Harvey says that's how it feels to people who took to the streets to protest in Ferguson.
THOMAS HARVEY: Every reporter I've talked to who came here said that either the second or third thing that people told them at the protest was about interaction with the police force and the courts. And they said it wasn't like they asked some kind of hard-hitting journalistic question, you know? They just - they said, what are you out here for? I want to support Mike Brown - justice for Mike Brown. And then they would just go on and talk about the courts.
SHAPIRO: Harvey is the co-founder of Arch City Defenders. It provides legal services to the poor. Last month, his group released a report that singled out Ferguson and showed why people hate those court costs - because if they don't pay, they can go to jail. And the municipal court issued a lot of arrest warrants. Last year, the city, with a population of 21,000, issued nearly 33,000 arrest warrants on traffic violations and other minor offenses. For Harvey, the council's steps to start cutting back fees was reason for hope and skepticism, too.
HARVEY: Frankly, as great as this first step is, there's nothing in that proposal that discusses how they're going to address the disproportionate stopping off African-Americans in their community.
SHAPIRO: Numbers from Missouri's attorney general counted vehicle stops in Ferguson. Blacks are far more likely to be stopped than whites, far more likely to be searched and twice as likely to be arrested even though whites are more likely to be caught with contraband. Still, the fact that it's Ferguson of all places that's taking first steps to limit the use of fines and fees is cause for some optimism that one day, this city will be seen as a place that became a national model for how to change court fees that target the poor. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.
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