Demand Withdrawing Arrest Warrants to Stop Debtors’ Prison

s27272609New Orleans   It seems almost incredible to say that anything good could come from a spokesperson from Ferguson, Missouri or for that matter the State of Missouri when it comes to criminal justice issues, but this may be proof that in fact the sun does shine on old dogs every once in a while.

But, yes, Ferguson, the St. Louis suburb now infamous for the police killing of Michael Brown last year and helping trigger the movement, Black Lives Matter, has announced that it is withdrawing thousands of arrest warrants for municipal violations. Furthermore they are also claiming to enact protocols that would prevent the incarceration of people who cannot pay fines and fees. Ferguson acted in advance of measures being taken by the State of Missouri and passed by its legislature to curtail and cap the cash that municipalities can keep from minor traffic beefs. Missouri is also moving to put an expiration date on practices of the modern criminal injustice system that have created debtors’ prisons of our jails and many of our communities by putting caps on the amount of time people can be locked up for failing to pay fines and fees. What can I say, other than, right on!

Well, plenty, starting with “it’s about time!” Not just for Ferguson, but everywhere. How much more evidence do we need that we have criminalized the poor with their own poverty and that the vicious cycle of pyramiding fines and fees that act as a huge bungee cord pulling people back into the system for every petty beef and larding on the costs until they’re back in jail? The Justice Department investigations have found this not just in Ferguson and other St. Louis suburbs, several of them vacuuming up more money in this way than Ferguson, but in communities around the country. We’ve cited excellent books including Michelle Anderson’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness early and prescient warnings in this area and Alice Goffman’s more recent unmasking of Philadelphia’s system in On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. How much more evidence do we need that this system is broken? How many more up-close-and-personal stories of this boomeranging of young men – and women – back to jail from selective policing in lower income, minority communities for minuscule beefs with escalating financial penalties?

Enough is enough.

In every community, we need to demand that lessons be learned from Ferguson, limits placed on penalties, and petty arrest warrants withdraw. There’s no way to repaint this problem or clean it up. We need a criminal injustice system makeover, a gut rehab down to the studs with an amnesty program vacating all of this garbage on minor, trivial matters, to realign our communities and our criminal justice and policing systems.

If Ferguson can do it, so can everyone else. It’s worth making the demands and engaging in the fight.

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The Woodbox Gang’s Born With A Tail

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