The economics of Ferguson and other forms of civil forfeiture

WILL CROTHERS

ferguson business insider Ferguson Mo.

An organization motivates the behaviour of its members in many ways. There is example-setting, forms of natural inspiration, experience, and the recruitment and training of members, among others. Broadly, it is the formal and informal setting of incentives and disincentives the organization believes will best work to achieve their goals. This delves into the realms of finance and economics, as well as rule making.

On Mar. 4, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) released its report in conclusion of its investigation of the Ferguson, Missouri police department. In its wake, several officers including Police Chief Thomas Jackson have resigned amid allegations of racial bias. One of the most intriguing findings in the investigation is the arrangement of municipal laws and the political push on revenue generating enforcement.

I can’t speculate on the personal motives involved. Police officers do a very tough job and in order to do so safely and effectively are given increased authority. Part of that deal is that in exchange for the consignment of public trust, the conduct of the force and its officers is held under higher scrutiny. They are an extension of the government’s enforcing protection of our rights, while also policing our wrongdoings. With the set of financially punitive laws in its municipal code and the demands placed on revenue generation, picking on the poor and generally black residents was the easiest economic enforcement target.

For a city of approximately 21,000 citizens, in 2013 Ferguson’s municipal court ordered 9,000 arrest warrants for infractions following failure to appear at a hearing and failure to fully pay fines by the deadline imposed. Even assuming that multiple warrants are issued for one person, that is a confounding number of infractions per capita, when you also consider those who can pay their fines by the stated deadline. These fines and court appearances often relate to non-felony offenses, ranging from traffic violations, unkempt lawns, animal ordinances, and not having proper permits for apartment rentals or for use of the city’s trash collection. Non-felony offenses that could be charged at the state level, such as assault and theft, get absorbed by mirrored municipal laws in order to reap fines for city rather than state coffers.

Now consider that according to the 2009 to 2013 American Community Survey cited by the Justice Department, 25 per cent of Ferguson lives below the federal poverty line. That means a substantial number of residents are on social assistance, are unemployed, and are minimum wage job holders. So, the residents that are least able to afford to pay fines, pay to stay in line with regulations that require money (e.g. car insurance, permitting), have a lawyer to defend them, or to miss work, are subject to a system that is aimed at revenue generation to fund itself.

Further compounding matters includes the following: the imposition of further fines for non or late payment of fines, the imposition of jail time for petty offenses which undermine the employability of those fined; and a backed up court system which requires offenders to take more time to face their charges while minimalizing the time a judge can properly adjudicate a fitting consequence. There also is a lack of non-financial resolutions available for the municipal courts to assign as restitution, such as community service. This lack of other options for those unable to pay fines promptly and in full indentures the poorest citizens to a cycle of debt to the city punishable by jail time or further debt load.

From the enforcement side, whether it’s a means to an end or not, the way to carry out unpopular tasks is to attach it to a job someone needs or wants to keep. When assignments and the opportunity for promotion are influenced by the number of infractions written, combined with perceived discipline or punishment for not doing so, organizational members will obey the incentives and disincentives. In this case, officers were inordinately obliged to produce revenue through citing infractions.

So with the table set as it is there any wonder why the DOJ concludes that one of the underlying causes of the tension is an erosion of trust in the municipal institutions? If told to fish, are we surprised they go where the fish are?

Ferguson’s economic strategy, regardless of any racist undertones, is not an isolated case. The mechanics may be different but the job is still the same. In an American environment where raising revenue through taxes is very unsavoury politically, user fees and penalties become a more crucial avenue to be explored for servicing or supplementing public budgets.

Civil forfeiture is another means to this end. It is a means of property seizure without the requirement of filing charges. The notion of civil forfeiture laws go back to feudal England. Its modern iteration is designed to help disrupt and dismantle drug rings and organized crime by hitting them in the wallet, however the scope is being extended to every day citizens, or at least their property.

The most common application is in common traffic stops where occupants are asked how much money they have in the car. At times, without warrant, arrest or filing of charges, in certain jurisdictions law enforcement at both state and federal levels can seize that cash if they think it has been derived from, involved in, or will be involved in a crime. I highly recommend John Oliver’s review of the topic on his show Last Week Tonight on the topic. The scale of this is in the billions of dollars, and civil forfeiture laws do not end at the American border. There are similar laws on the books in Canada, and similar worries about its application.

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