Photos and Reflections: Why Ferguson Shows The Need For A Court Accountability Movement

De-Bug was in Ferguson and neighboring municipalities last week as their courts faced national pressure from a scathing Department of Justice report. But we found the problem is not just in Ferguson. Read the reflection from Raj Jayadev, and view the photo profiles by Jean Melesaine, to meet the people who have bore the brunt of a predatory courts, and are becoming the movement to bring the injustice to an end. This piece first appeared in the Huffington Post.

A mural sits on the wall of a screenprint shop in North St. Louis dedicated in memory of Mike Brown.

ST.LOUIS, MO – In dizzying speed last week, six officials here in Ferguson have been removed in the wake of the Department of Justice scathing report on their municipal court. And as the Ferguson city government collapses like a house of cards, I was standing in line at the Maplewood municipal court, fifteen minutes south of Ferguson. Here, the court operates without interruption, free from the weight of public exposure.

The courtroom full, the line to get in, made up exclusively of African-American residents, snaked through the corridors of the building. The people here and what they endure on a regular basis, as traffic tickets become jail sentences and insurmountable fines, is what fueled the Department of Justice condemnation of their more known neighboring municipality of Ferguson. 

Maplewood, a municipality of 8,000, in 2013 brought in over $800,000 in fines in 2013, and filed near 12,000 cases that year. And Maplewood, even Ferguson, are not the worst offenders in terms of municipalities here relying upon tickets and warrant fines to build revenue. According to research group Better Tomorrow, one municipality called Calverton Park pulled in 66% of their municipalities budget through court fines.

Change heralded by protests after the shooting of Michael Brown 

Of course, these practices by the municipal courts have been going on for years here. That it caught the eye of the Department of Justice is more a testament to the protests after the shooting of Michael Brown rather than a reflection of the efficacy of federal monitoring or an injustice for which time of reckoning had simply arrived. The people of Ferguson demanded the world stop and look at their town, and didn’t quit until the world did just that.

The lesson is that change does not come from Supreme Court declarations, or federal intervention, but is the cause and effect of everyday people bending institutions through the gravity of their collective power. It is the political physics of ground up community action.

Standing in this line, it is impossible not to wonder — what if the collective action displayed in the streets to stop racial profiling and police violence were applied directly to the courthouses? What if this historic movement, which has gathered momentum nationally for police accountability, looked at police agencies not as isolated actors, but as the first point of contact to the larger criminal justice system that has been insulated from general public examination?  


Latricia, 39, faces fines in Maplewood for a traffic ticket. She faced four other charges in different municipalities, and beat the charges through her ArchCity Defender attorney Stephanie Lummus. Latricia and Lummus go back to go court at the end of month to try to remove the fines of the remaining charge. When asked what she wish judges better understood she says, "These judges need to know that life happens to people, there are people who work 3 jobs and are still struggling."

An entrenched problem of defense — lack of access & resources

As a community organizer working with families whose loved ones are facing criminal charges, I have been sitting in courts across the country. The undeniable common denominator, even through an eye test (but documented in national statistics), is that despite geography, courthouses nationwide are filled disproportionately with people of color who are overwhelmingly being processed to go to jail or prison. Over 80% of people facing charges will not be able to afford to pay for their own attorney. The plea rate nationally as well is over 90%, meaning very few people have their “day in court” that we often mythologize in TV shows and movies.

Here in St. Louis, the ArchCity Defenders, who were the first group who blew the whistle on the injustices within the municipal courts, represent the indigent and homeless. From advocating for the least heard on a nightly basis here, ArchCity Defender Executive Director Thomas Harvey makes an observation about Ferguson that rings true in counties nationally, "If you're poor and black and standing in front of court saying, 'I can't afford this,' I think the court is less likely to listen to you.” 

In that packed Maplewood court, I was with an ArchCity Defender Stephanie Lummus and her client LaTricia, who had given birth to twins just three months prior, and was living in a shelter. Lummus was arguing to the judge to remove the fines of her ticket for not having proper registration. If she cannot prevail, Latricia will be paying fines to a court through her TANIF check — money that otherwise would go to diapers and baby formula. Had LaTricia not had Lummus by her side, the decision would have likely already been made demanding payment, rather then having a hearing set for Lummus to argue for a removal of fines.

The ArchCity Defenders were the only defense attorneys in the courtroom — everyone else was there without representation.

Witnessing the conveyer belt of convictions in Maplewood and other courtrooms, it is difficult to argue that the criminal court system is an area where constitutional rights are being exercised to mete out justice, but rather is simply an efficient delivery system for mass incarceration — where the United States leads the world with number of people behind bars, holding over 2 million of its residents.

Stephanie Lummus attorney at ArchCity Defenders, she got Melvin Baines case
dismissed and found him housing and is currenty helping to fight Latricia's tickets. 

How can we fix a broken justice system?

I have sat in countless courtrooms alongside families whose loved ones are being sentenced.  After these hearings most families — in the parking lot, at home, or elsewhere – will ask for one wish.  That wish is not that this never happened, or that they could rewrite history.  Rather, families often state: “I just wish they knew him like we know him.”

What if we could channel this instinct towards reform? What if those facing charges, their families and communities, actively engaged to impact the outcome of cases — pushing and partnering with their overloaded public defender, letting judges know they are being held to account by the electorate, challenging prosecutorial practices? Larger systemic changes can become attainable when people participate in the court process everyday in every courtroom in America.

Organically, the movement for police accountability has arrived at the courthouse steps here in Ferguson. Many of those who protested months ago over the killing of Mike Brown were arrested, and must face prosecutors and judges in the courtroom, just as they faced police in riot gear on the streets. It is a bit of karma, by charging people at rallies and marches with criminal allegations, the authorities have essentially invited the protest community into the courts.

The community organization MORE (Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment) have created a legal support collective to create a space for collective action in the otherwise isolating experience of adjudication. MORE Organizer Nabeehah Azeez oversees the support collective. She has no law degree, but at 28, she is already a seasoned community leader – battle tested from the protests and organizing in Ferguson after Mike Brown. She says, “We are trying to bring a little more justice to St.Louis County because left to their own devices the criminal justice system here does not serve everyone equally.”

"Imagine going down one road for 5 minutes and you past 5 municipalities. And say you have a broken tail light. You can get 5 tickets for the same thing in each municipality."-Nabeehah Azeez, 28, is an legal support organizer for MORE (Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment)

A game-changing idea of "participatory defense " — Communities as agents of change 

We have seen this process of allowing the power of collective action to continue from the streets to the court system — what we call participatory defense — have lasting impact in the Bay Area, California. There, the organization I am apart of the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project (ACJP)has been employing participatory defense in our local courts for seven years, we have seen family and community intervention lead to acquittals, charges dismissed and reduced, prison terms changed to rehabilitation programs, even life sentences taken off the table. 

In one such instance, Ramon, who was charged with murder and was facing a life sentence for a crime he did not commit, was released and all the charges were dropped due to “insufficiency of evidence”. His family and community worked closely with his lawyer, identifying contradictory statements by police and witnesses, ordering a polygraph or even producing “Ten Evidence-Based Reasons that Prove Ramon’s Innocence” leading to a strong defense.

When we tallied the number of years saved from incarceration directly as a result of communities participating in their defense we totaled over 1,800 years of time saved from incarceration. These families not only kept loved ones home, they also saved the state millions of dollars from having to house someone in our department of corrections.

This partnership of community and defender could be a real game-changer nationally. Eight out of ten of the roughly 2.3 million incarcerated would have been represented by a public defender.

"I came to pay my fine for a ticket, and the clerk said to come back on a different date. I came back on that day and there was no court, a warrant had been issued for me already. I showed the clerk that she had written down the wrong date and she said I was lying and to turn myself in"- Devon, 23 years old stands in front of Maplewood Municipality Court. 

Going from systemic change to individuals who see themselves as agents of change

In my home county we had no public defenders at misdemeanor arraignment court, which meant like the Maplewood court, people were negotiating sentences with a judge without counsel — despite the promise of constitutional protections. But once families and communities started to look at the court as a malleable institution, they voiced their support for the public defenders office to have a presence in that court, securing their constitutional rights and triggering a systemic change that would impact the lives of many.

The impact of individuals engaging the courts as actors, rather than the acted upon, can be measured by reductions of sentences and court fines, or even by reformed policies. However, it also leads to a more profound transformation in individuals themselves. The person who once felt overwhelmed by a court system that represents power, law, and unlimited resources, sees that they too have power to make change, in their lives, and within that very system. They too can be David to the perceived Goliath of the courts. Indeed, in our weekly participatory defense meetings many of the family members who had success in their case come back to let new families know what is possible.

Here in Maplewood, children waited in the car for their mothers, friends came to lend moral support, and church members waited by their phones to hear the results. These are people who can transform our courts. To see the movement that has the size and moral authority to bring real justice to the judicial system, just walk by any court in America, and look who is in line.

Melvin Baine, 56 year old veteran, stands in an ally near his home in South St.Louis. Last year he was jailed for a trespassing charge for entering a casino, despite meeting their criteria of having a valid ID. He was homeless at the time, and now has an apartment and job, after getting the support of the ArchCity Defenders. He says, "The courts are nothing but a cash cow."

About Jean Melesaine

Jean Melesaine is a queer Samoan community activist, documentary photographer and editor with Silicon Valley De-Bug. 

About Raj Jayadev

Raj Jayadev is the coordinator of SV De-Bug and coordinates the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project, an organizing model for families and communities to impact their local court systems. He is an Ashoka Fellow.

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This is a fine article. Raj Jayadev keeps on keeping on. When they list the great ones in the people's movement his name will be way up near the top. Sure as hell, the cop with a club and a gun opens the door to the prison industrial complex. Once inside, the cop's victim hits the Municipal Court, the ante room of the big house of prison injustice. Well done Raj Jayadev and Jean Melesaine!

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