Dear Mayor Knowles:
I attended last Tuesday’s Ferguson City Council meeting, but was denied the opportunity to be heard. Thus, I write to you now in this open letter to share what I would have shared publically if permitted to do so.
I would have thanked you for seeking input and guidance. I would have commended you for looking more carefully at municipal court policies and processes. And I would have expressed gratitude for your implicit acknowledgement that poverty should not serve as a reason for punishment. These are important first steps forward.
But I would have also told you – as you heard so eloquently expressed by the St. Louis University (SLU) Law student who addressed the Council – that your proposed changes to municipal court practices do not go far enough. In particular, I would have reiterated the points made in a letter I sent to your attention on August 26, joining with the SLU Legal Clinic and Arch City Defenders in urging amnesty for all outstanding warrants, fines and fees in Ferguson.
That letter was signed by a diverse group of youth advocates who work with young people and families across the St. Louis region. They include social workers, juvenile defense attorneys, teachers, guardians ad litem, racial justice lawyers, housing support professionals, social services providers and faith-based program representatives. All have worked with kids whose lives have been negatively impacted by our municipal court systems and their ongoing cycle of prosecution, financial penalty, warrant, arrest and jail.
Sadly, many of these cases stem from nothing more than ordinary adolescent behaviors – like staying out late with friends, driving a little too fast or jaywalking. Yet they are not behaviors that are similarly criminalized or aggressively prosecuted in non-minority communities. And they can result in long-term collateral consequences outside of the courthouse doors.
As you heard from community members, tickets, fines, and then warrants from these cases can result in the loss of housing, reduced job opportunities, child welfare system problems, and even prohibition from serving as a little league sports coach.
You heard from parents of impacted children who were pulled into the Ferguson Municipal Court system when they were just 16 or 17 years old. Those youth were then saddled with debilitating debt – even though they were too young to vote or enter into a binding contract. Beyond the fact that these “cash from kids” practices inhumanely work to punish poverty and reduce the life chances of community youth, they are simply unlawful.
Countless kids have been shuttled through our municipal court systems with no lawyers at their side. Their guardians have been left at the front door because of historic closed court practices. All too frequently, they do not know their rights and do not appreciate all possible direct and collateral consequences of their rushed guilty pleas. Thus due process, the right to counsel, and other constitutional norms are all but forgotten.
Advocates at the University of Miami School of Law, the Colorado Juvenile Defender Coalition, the Family Law Center of Georgia, the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project of Pennsylvania, and Howard University School of Law all join with local youth advocates in urging meaningful reforms. And as you know other local, state, and national groups remain focused on remediation and improved practices in Ferguson in the days ahead.
Again, I agree that the Council has taken an important first step by seeking input, reviewing policies, and acknowledging that poverty is not be reason for punishment. But it can and should do more.
Granting amnesty for all outstanding warrants, fines and fees is an even more legally prudent, logistically practical, and fundamentally humanitarian step the City of Ferguson can take at this time. Particularly as the world is watching and waiting, it will demonstrate that the Ferguson City Council is really listening and cares about providing fair process. It will also foster greater healing, work to improve life chances of impacted youth, and allow Ferguson to take this tragic moment and turn it into an opportunity to stand as a model municipality for St. Louis County and the rest of the country.
Mae C. Quinn is professor of Law and director of the Juvenile Law and Justice Clinic at Washington University.