If the purpose of activism is to affect systemic change, the latest development in the saga of Ferguson, Mo. marks a major victory for the social justice movement that started after the death of teenager Michael Brown in that city last August.
In a bill signed into law today, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon finalized what he called the "most significant" reform to the state's municipal courts system ever to have been enacted.
Under the new law, cities will be unable to raise over 20% of their budgets through their municipal court systems, reported the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In St. Louis County, the home of Ferguson, that cap will be set even lower, to 12.5% of city budgets.
A U.S. Department of Justice report released in March said the Ferguson Municipal Court, which is part of St. Louis County, operated “not with the primary goal of administering justice or protecting the rights of the accused, but of maximizing revenue.”
In 2013, the municipal court system accounted for 21% of the city's revenue—a number which was indicative of a greater trend in the region.
At the height of the nation's attention to the city last year, local activists started calling on major changes to the city's municipal court system. In the documentary Ferguson: A Report From Occupied Territory, Fusion followed residents of the city as they navigated its legal system.
The St. Louis region accounted for 46% of all fines and fees collected statewide, despite being home to only 22% of Missourians, according to a 2013 year analysis by Better Together, a local grassroots group "born in response to growing public interest in addressing the fragmented nature of local government throughout St. Louis City and County."
Better Together found the revenue that came from court fines and fees came “primarily at the expense of black citizens.”
“Tensions have been high [in Ferguson] because of what the citizens here see as police abuse.” Michael Voss, the co-founder of Arch City Defenders, a non-profit legal service in St Louis, told Fusion of the situation last October. “Our clients feel racially profiled and that their poverty is exploited.”
“The impact that revenue concerns have on court operations undermines the court's role as a fair and impartial judicial body,” noted the Justice Department report.
The new law also sets a $300 ceiling for how much residents can get charged for minor traffic violations, and prohibits the ability of cities to issue jail sentences for people who are unable to pay a fine. Previously, the Ferguson Jail had been likened to a "debtor's prison" for how many people were serving time because of an inability to pay fines, which only multiplied the longer they went unpaid.
"Under this bill, cops will stop being revenue agents and go back to being cops," Gov. Nixon said at the signing.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.
Jorge Rivas is the national affairs correspondent at Fusion. He follows the national conversation through the lens of racial, sexual, and political identity.