The Department of Justice’s angry condemnation of the Ferguson police department asserts systemic racism in the enforcement of certain laws. I argued here that the DOJ’s report fails to show such racism, though it may exist.
But the DOJ’s report takes its criticism even further. It is concerned that even the facially neutral application of certain laws by the Ferguson justice system is discriminatory because of the impact on African-Americans. DOJ complains, for example, about instances in which Blacks indisputably violated ordinances, such as those pertaining to parking, and ended up in jail or owing large fines because they indisputably didn’t pay their initial fine as required.
The Justice Department claims that the Ferguson police department is using law enforcement to extract money from African-Americans. As Eric Holder puts it, Ferguson is engaging in “revenue generation through policing.”
I have several responses to the DOJ’s attack on Ferguson’s enforcement of its ordinances pertaining to matters such as parking. First, it is none of the federal government’s business. The price of a parking ticket and the penalties for not paying them on time are issues of purely local concern.
Second, there is no basis for inferring racism from Ferguson’s parking enforcement practices. Cities and municipalities throughout the nation generate revenue from the policing of parking violations and the like.
For example, Washington, DC, whose government is run by African-American officials, raises a significant amount of revenue by ticketing parking violators, including a large number of white suburbanites who park in the District (me, for example). This isn’t racism or even anti-suburban bias. It’s not personal; it’s just business.
Third, there’s an easy way to thwart “revenue generation through policing.” Obey the parking rules and other municipal ordinances, and don’t exceed the speed limit. In the event of a violation, pay your fine on time and don’t blow off any court appearances. Is this too much to ask?
Eric Holder has a different remedial approach in mind. He says he’s “prepared to use all the powers” of the federal government against Ferguson. Asked if this includes “dismantling the police force,” Holder said, “If that’s what’s necessary, we’re prepared to do that.”
But the DOJ’s report lays part of the blame for the ills it alleges on the municipal court system. Does Holder intend to dismantle Ferguson’s courts too?
What the Justice Department really intends to do is coerce Ferguson into agreeing, in essence, to a less strict regime of law enforcement in certain respects. If Ferguson agrees, standards will be lowered and fewer fines will be handed out. If it doesn’t agree, Ferguson will be sued.
Ironically, as Jim Scanlan has shown, reducing the number of fines will tend to increase the Black representation among those who are fined. In other words, it will increase disparate impact, the existence of which is the DOJ’s only hook for challenging Ferguson’s facially neutral practices.
But so what? DOJ isn’t interested in reducing disparate impact. It simply wants Blacks to pay fewer and smaller fines.
One can debate the wisdom of Ferguson’s various municipal ordinances and its regime of penalties (though, again, it’s not the federal government’s business). To me, they seem rather draconian. Maybe Ferguson should find other ways to raise money. (It’s my understanding, though, that raising money through lotteries or casino gambling, for example, tends adversely to impact lower income individuals, of whom a disproportionate number are Black — is the federal government attacking these methods?)
But rules and the penalties for violating them shouldn’t be changed merely because one demographic group is less able than average to comply with them. There is no civil right to have the law tailored in this way. Nor would the relevant civil rights statutes ever have been enacted if such a right had been said to flow from them.