Public Safety & Justice

Skyrocketing Court Fines Are Major Revenue Generator for Ferguson

Some say Ferguson's increasing reliance on court fines to fund its municipal operations may have contributed to its residents' distrust in law enforcement and government.
by | August 22, 2014
Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, right, speaking to reporters about the protests following a police officer's fatal shooting of Michael Brown.
Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, right, speaking to reporters about the protests following a police officer's fatal shooting of Michael Brown. AP/Jeff Roberson

Much has been made of the apparently poor police-community relations in Ferguson, Mo., where a confrontation with the police two weeks ago left 18-year old Michael Brown dead and sparked weeks of community unrest. But there are other less visible yet no less serious indicators of simmering conflict in Ferguson, say experts, including one buried in the city’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR).

Ferguson's budget relies heavily on public safety and court fines that have skyrocketed in recent years. A review of Ferguson’s financial statements indicates that court fine collections now account for one-fifth of total operating revenue. The St. Louis suburb of about 21,000 residents took in more than $2.5 million in municipal court revenue last fiscal year, representing an 80 percent increase from only two years prior, when fines netted about $1.4 million.

While the media has focused largely on the police department’s testy relationship with the majority black community and the city’s shifting demographics, longstanding frustration with the municipal court system may have also contributed to the civil unrest, say some.

Brendan Roediger, an assistant professor at the Saint Louis University School of Law who supervises a local civil advocacy clinic, said practices of the local court system are a major driver of Ferguson residents’ distrust of government and law enforcement. Roediger described a court system in Ferguson and select areas of St. Louis that function primarily as a revenue generator. “They don’t want to actually incarcerate people because it costs money, so they fine them,” he said. “It appears to be a blatant money grab.”

From his time representing clients in Ferguson, Roediger estimates the court -- which holds three sessions each month -- heard 200 to 300 cases per hour some days.

The city’s most recent annual budget report attributed the sharp increase in fines to a “more concentrated focus on traffic enforcement” from both manned enforcement and the installation of traffic cameras. Red light cameras posted in three locations resulted in 5,318 tickets in fiscal year 2013, according to city records.

Ferguson’s financial documents depict a city increasingly reliant on fines to fund government operations. In all, fines and forfeitures accounted for 20 percent of the city’s $12.7 million operating revenue in fiscal year 2013, up from about 13 percent in 2011.

While there isn’t comprehensive national data on what percentage of municipal revenue is typically generated by court fines, Governing compiled financial data for other nearby municipalities in northern St. Louis County with at least 5,000 residents. Of 19 local governments with available CAFRs, Ferguson relies more on fines to fund government than all but two smaller jurisdictions.

Hazelwood, a neighboring town of about the same size, took in about $1.9 million, or 8.1 percent of its total general fund revenue. Fines and forfeitures accounted for just 2.5 percent of general fund revenue for the city of St. Louis in fiscal year 2013.

NOTE: Data shown for jurisdictions in northern St. Louis County with populations of at least 5,000. Figures for Richmond Heights have been updated. Financial reports for Normandy and Dellwood were unavailable.

SOURCE: Municipalities' FY 2013 annual financial reports

In general, traffic fines tend to account for a larger share of revenue in smaller communities. State law, however, prohibits Missouri municipalities from collecting more than 35 percent of operating revenues from traffic fines and court costs, requiring excess money be turned over to the state Department of Revenue for schools.

If cities decide to ramp up traffic enforcement, they shouldn’t do so primarily to raise revenue, said Christine Cole, executive director of Harvard Kennedy School's criminal justice policy and management program. “It can put police in a difficult place because you then become reliant on that revenue,” she said.

Rather, any increase in enforcement must be clearly tied to public safety gains. It’s also equally crucial that city officials and law enforcement communicate such safety benefits to residents, Cole said.

It’s difficult to gauge the extent to which the increased enforcement and hefty fines added to Ferguson residents’ discontent in the years leading up to shooting death of Michael Brown. Legal advocates, though, argue that it helped foster negative perceptions of law enforcement and government in general.

ArchCity Defenders, a local legal and social advocacy firm, recently issued a scathing white paper that identified the Ferguson Municipal Court as one of the region’s most “chronic offenders.”

The Ferguson, Mo., City Hall, which houses the municipal court. (FlickrCC/Paul Sableman)

The group observed 60 municipal courts as part of a court watching program and interviewed defendants. Thomas Harvey, the group’s executive director, said clients felt they were exploited by local municipalities and targeted for being black. Many even expressed a desire to leave the area because of treatment by the justice system.

“It contributed to a distrust that is a contributing factor to the unrest now,” Harvey said.

The report alleged that the Ferguson Municipal Court routinely began hearing cases 30 minutes before the scheduled start time, then locked the doors to the building five minutes after the official start. As a result, those who arrived late faced an additional charge for failing to appear. The Ferguson court also limited access to hearings to only defendants and lawyers. Earlier this summer, the presiding judge of the St. Louis County Circuit Court sent a letter urging municipal judges and cities to open their courts to the public.

The Ferguson Municipal Court disposed of 24,532 warrants and 12,018 cases in 2013, or about 3 warrants and 1.5 cases per household, according to the report.

The court system, Harvey said, never anticipated the effects it would have on poorer residents’ lives. When defendants can’t afford legal counsel or to pay off fines, it hampers their ability to take advantage of job training and other programs. “If you’re already living on the margins, the consequences of these warrants and failure to pay the fines are disproportionate to the infraction,” Harvey said.

Residents’ encounters with police and the court system greatly shape their perceptions of both law enforcement and government, said Darrel Stephens, who directs the Major Cities Chiefs, an association of police executives. People aren’t going to be happy about receiving a ticket. But, Stephens said, they’ll be less likely to loathe police if they understand why they were ticketed and are treated with respect.

“The contact they have with people in the community and during traffic stops is critically important to how people feel,” he said.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from Public Safety & Justice