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The Department of Justice Is Asking Ferguson To Do the Impossible

Ferguson needs to drastically revise its court system. But how is a city supported by predatory court fees supposed to fund reform?
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James Lawler Duggan/Reuters

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Justice concluded its civil-rights investigation in Ferguson, Missouri, issuing a scathing report on the practices of the Ferguson Police Department and the city's municipal court system. Today, the city's law-enforcement agency and justice apparatus begin the long road to reform. But the directives given by Justice to the police department and to the court may be at odds with one another.

Ferguson relies on court fees to fund its municipal activities. It's a well-documented fact that the collection of court fines represents a significant revenue stream for the suburb. A rapidly rising stream, too. Collections now account for one-fifth of total operating revenues and serve as the second-largest source of revenue overall. Last fall, Mother Jones and NPR detailed the many ticky-tack fouls that Ferguson officials call on residents—especially poor and black residents.