Ferguson lawyer stresses equality under the law

The California Lutheran University criminal justice department  presented “Dis-proportionate Justice: Monetary Sanctions” which discussed how monetary sanctions are used to arrest and punish poor people across the country.

Alexes Harris, a sociology professor from the University of Washington, discussed the long-term problem of unjust court fines and fees given to minority groups who have committed felonies.

“I think it’s interesting, in terms of scholarship, when I started publishing in this area. A lot of criminologists and sociologists [said] ‘I’m so shocked that we haven’t studied this before.’ Because I did my dissertation in juvenile court, I saw it being sentenced,” Harris said.

According to Harris’ research, there are 5.85 million American adults living with a felony, 60 percent of which are people of color. This means that one out of 17 Caucasian males, one out of six Latino males and one out of three African-American males are in federal or state prisons.

The consequences of monetary sanctions include not being able to vote, carry weapons, hold public office, serve on juries, seal records, defer prosecutions or receive pardons. 

However Harris emphasized her research on the main problem of this matter which is when these people cannot pay for their fines. The punishments for failure to pay requires regular court attendance as well as creating a payment plan. Yet if there is a warrant for non-payment or the felon does not show up in court, they will ultimately be incarcerated.

Harris said her belief that minority groups are impacted differently than Caucasians is due to the distinct criteria that courts implement.

“I sit and think about it from my middle class sensibilities. I didn’t think $300 really mattered as much as incarceration. We fixated on incarceration over the last number of years and [did not think]about the other ways in which the system has expanded to literally control the very movements of individuals,” Harris said.

As a result of unpaid monetary sanctions, those convicted of felonies must deal with several financial constraints such as attaining food, housing, employment and medication.

Furthermore these individuals encounter family stress as they may have children. Harris said that there have even been cases of emotional strain as some are afraid to speak with police due to fear of incarceration.

Thomas Harvey, civil rights lawyer and co-founder of ArchCity Defenders, spoke about how an estimated 500,000 people are currently staying in local jails for simple monetary sanctions such as traffic tickets.

Harvey’s inspiration for fighting these sanctions came from the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. According to Harvey’s research, around 450,000 individuals had a warrant for arrest after Brown’s killing, nearly all of them being African-American.

Currently, there are 90 municipalities around St. Louis County and the warrants outnumber the population. Ferguson gave out 10 times the warrants than it had citizens.

“We’ve done court-watching programs where we’ve had women from the social justice group at their church who wanted to get involved. The courts act completely different with the presence of middle-class white people watching than they do when there’s nothing but impoverished people that the court doesn’t take seriously,” Harvey said.

Additionally, some courts close themselves off to the general public, making it almost impossible for people to pay off their fees and fines since they receive no counsel.

“Equal justice and the law filed seven lawsuits this year, the ACLU has filed suit and there have been a number of studies. It’s hard to defeat a system that’s been in place so long and that is such a part of our society that it always seems to recalibrate in a different direction,” Harvey said.

Junior Henry Bulmer, who attended the presentation, said most civilians may not come to a felon’s aid as they are perceived with the usual stereotype of a criminal.

“We kind of buy into the idea that these people are criminals to be punished when they’re actually getting taken advantage of in the system. It’s hard to tell people that we need to help these people because they’re not going to help criminals,” Bulmer said.

Although there is no set solution to change the system, Harvey recommends everyday civilians go to court and speak up for unjust court practices when they encounter people dealing with these sanctions. Bulmer said that it’s still an issue because it’s characteristic to the way people think politically.

“I think the best way is to keep educating people and just change the way the public perceives criminals as less than. There’s disparity in the way the system’s created. Just because someone committed a crime doesn’t mean they’re not a good person necessarily,” Bulmer said.

Leina Rayshouny
Staff Writer
Published November 11th, 2015