Ferguson, Missouri is finally getting a much-needed overhaul of its troubled court system, which cops and judges were using to squeeze money out of the city’s largely poor residents.
The St. Louis suburb—where the unarmed teenager Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer a year ago, helping to trigger the Black Lives Matter movement—has been ordered by a judge to withdraw all arrest warrants issued before Dec. 31, 2014. Ferguson defendants will get new court dates along with a choice of how to resolve their case, such as community service or payment plans.
The ruling by new municipal court judge Donald McCullin comes after a scathing report from the US Justice Department, carried out in the wake of the Brown shooting, which found that Ferguson police and the court system worked together to exploit citizens to raise revenue for the city. Minor city code violations were punished with massive fines, arrests, and jail time.
As of the end of last year, more than 16,000 people had outstanding arrest warrants in Ferguson—the equivalent of 75% of the city’s population. These practices continued even this month, CNN reports, with the city pumping out thousands of arrest warrants and tickets.
Under McCullin’s ruling, if citizens are unable to pay their fines, they may be commuted. A minor traffic violation will result in a court date—not an arrest, as it had before. ”These changes should continue the process of restoring confidence in the Court,”McCullin said in a statement, “and giving many residents a fresh start.”
A separate inquiry from the Justice Department showed that Ferguson police specifically discriminated against the city’s black residents, targeting them in traffic stops and using excessive police force. Black residents make up 67% of the city’s population but accounted for 93% of arrests. Police chief Thomas Jackson resigned following the report.