A new municipal court judge in Ferguson, Mo. this week announced he was withdrawing all arrest warrants issued before Jan. 1, 2015, taking an action that should be duplicated and expanded by courts in Oakland and other cities across the country, according to local anti-mass incarceration and civil rights activists.
Many of the warrants were for unpaid fines or failure to appear in court for traffic violations
“The Ferguson court took a significant step in trying to undo years and decades of a cycle of poverty and incarceration in that city, though it is certainly not all that needs to be done,” said Zachary Norris, executive director of Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, which has been involved in campaigns against mass incarceration.
Under the court order issued by Ferguson Judge Donald McCullin on Aug. 24, the conditions of pre-trial release were modified, and defendants will be give new court dates along with alternative dispositions, such as payment plans, community service or commuting fines for people without money.
“Many individuals whose license has been suspended will be able to obtain them and take advantage of the benefits of being able to drive,” said McCullin. “Moreover, defendants will not be (denied) pre-trial release because of inability to make bond.”
In addition, if arrest warrants were issued for a minor traffic violation, the defendants will not be incarcerated but instead released on their own recognizance.
All active warrants more than five years old will be withdrawn. In cases where a person’s driver’s license was suspended solely for failure to appear in court or pay a fine, the license will be reinstated pending final disposition.
The judge’s ruling is in part a response to a scathing Department of Justice report in March that found Ferguson’s police department and municipal court targeted low-income and minority residents with tickets and fines for minor offenses in order to raise revenue for the city.
According to the DOJ Report, more than 16,000 people, equal to 70 percent of the city’s population, had outstanding arrest warrants at the end of last year.
While the judge’s action was a significant step forward, according to Norris of Ella Baker Center, the reform could not have been won without grassroots activism.
“It was a hard-fought victory that comes as a result of community struggle,” said Norris, who said the Organization for Black Struggle in the Saint Louis area made the withdrawal of warrants one of its central demands.
“The Organization for Black Struggle has been advocating for changing several of these policies that effectively result in debtors prison (for the poor),” he said.
The practice of issuing warrants amounts to a “money-making scheme” that is common in California, affecting as many as one out of six drivers, he said.
“Traffic courts drive inequality in California,” he said, referring to the case of one woman who had a $25 traffic ticket and as result of penalties, ultimately owed $2,900.
The woman lost her license and her job, ending up on public assistance, he said. “She was consigned to an unending cycle of poverty and incarceration.”
In Oakland, Norris continued, “We need to end the practice of suspending licenses for traffic tickets, taking away people’s way to continue with their jobs.”
The city also needs “deep and meaningful pretrial reform,” said Norris, noting that 75 percent of people in the Alameda County jail have been convicted of nothing.
“They are charged with something and can’t make bail,” which means they lose their jobs and disrupt family relationships, he said.
Local judges should take up the challenge to make these same reforms, said Oakland civil rights attorney and activist Walter Riley.
“Oakland judges need to look at this kind of example,” he said. “The judge in Ferguson has recognized some of the inequities and has taken the responsibility to do something about it.”
This cycle of arrests, fines and jailing are an element of mass incarceration, said Riley, the continuous adverse impact of the criminal justice system of people without money, particularly on African Americans.