Follow the Money . . . to Ferguson

Posted in: Civil Rights

“Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.” So began the report written by the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, a 100-page indictment of the Ferguson Police Department. The entire document repays careful study, but at its core, the report describes a department—and municipality—beset by two overlapping problems.

First, the City uses its police to close gaps in the city budget rather than deter or investigate crime. As a result, the police in Ferguson are fee- and fine-producers instead of peace officers, which has predictably led to chronic over-policing. “Many officers,” the report found, seem to view Ferguson’s residents “less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.”

Second, the Ferguson Police Department has developed an adversarial culture that routinely trumps the restraints imposed by the Constitution. “Officers expect and demand compliance even when they lack legal authority.” As symbols of authority so often do, Ferguson police apparently confuse disagreement with disobedience, and mistake a legitimate exercise of constitutional rights with an unpardonable display of disrespect.

The report implies that the second condition follows from the first, but in this regard it is mistaken. The fact that the police are misused as revenue agents need not make them hostile to the community they ostensibly serve. One can imagine, in other words, an officer handing yet another ticket to a Ferguson resident for some trivial or non-existent offense with an apology instead of a snarl.

The problem of an adversarial police culture—in which the police view themselves as operating in hostile territory and treat the community as the dangerous enemy—has been recognized for decades. It was immortalized in the movie, Ft. Apache, the Bronx, and helps account for the too-quick decision to acquire and deploy the latest and most advanced weapons of war on neighborhood streets. I hope to address this problem in future columns, since it is almost impossible to imagine meaningful reform of the criminal justice system so long as it persists.

But today, I want to address the first problem identified by DOJ—viz., the distorting influence of money. More than anything, the DOJ report confirms the familiar insight that financial incentives can have a profound, if not always dispositive, influence on behavior. Implicit in this insight, and similarly confirmed by the lesson of common experience, is that if you alter the incentives, you can influence the behavior.

Ironically, this was a key insight in the earliest years of the punitive turn in American life. In 1975, conservative political scientist James Q. Wilson published, Thinking About Crime, where he argued that offenders were fundamentally rational actors who assessed the relevant incentives and chose crime because the anticipated balance of risk and reward favored lawlessness. Change the balance and you will alter the behavior, or so he thought. His work was exceptionally important in advancing the view that punishment should be far more swift, certain, and severe, a view which many legislators and criminal justice policymakers quickly endorsed.

Tinkering with incentives is also an essential component of the neoliberal approach to crime control, which relies on, among other things, the management and control of physical space to corral and redirect would-be offenders. Have you ever noticed that newer park benches use metal armrests to divide the bench into two or three distinct seats? That’s not for comfort. It prevents the bench from being used as a bed, and therefore deters the homeless from mixing with the good people of the city.

To date, proposals to redirect the flow of money have not played a prominent part in the discussion of criminal justice reform, which has focused instead on statutory changes, mostly at the state level. But there is some evidence this may be changing. Recently, the MacArthur Foundation announced a $75 million grant to develop programs aimed at reducing jail populations. Last week I spoke with Nancy Fishman, the Project Director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the VERA Institute, a major player in criminal justice reform and one of four groups charged with administering the MacArthur grant.

As Fishman explained, the idea of the grant is to create incentives for municipalities to think systemically about how to eliminate what has become a reflexive over-reliance on jail. Over the past two decades, violent crime has fallen by nearly 50 percent and property crime by 44 percent. Yet annual admissions to jails in the United States have almost doubled, from six million to nearly 12 million. The great majority of these people, perhaps as many as three-quarters, are held for nonviolent traffic, property, drug, or public order offenses. Many are mentally ill or have alcohol or drug dependencies but are warehoused in jail for want of alternatives. Finally, to compound the crisis, pretrial detainees are held far longer than in the past: over the past three decades, the average stay has increased from 14 to 23 days. (VERA’s report is available here).

MacArthur, VERA, and its partners hope to identify and fund creative proposals from municipalities that will reward alternative strategies. Backed by MacArthur’s resources and tied to VERA’s technical expertise, these alternatives will—one hopes—change the incentives in a way that encourages police, sheriffs, prosecutors, judges, and legislators to think of jail as the last resort rather than the first. This, after all, is the intended purpose of pretrial detention, which should be limited to those very few who cannot safely be returned to the community. All evidence shows that jails long ago took on a far different role.

One lesson of the DOJ report is that if you reward municipalities to think and behave differently, they will. If cash-strapped cities are paid to reserve jail for the appropriate population, they will, and the message will gradually spread from the mayor in city hall to the cop on the street, and all the actors in between. Prosecutors will learn not to seek pretrial detention for those who should be diverted elsewhere, judges will no longer impose bail that sounds reasonable to a middle class sensibility but is far beyond the reach of a poor man or woman, and legislators will think twice before creating yet another category of crime that calls for presumptive pretrial detention.

No one remotely thinks that the MacArthur grant will solve the problem of distorted incentives and misallocated money in the criminal justice system. After all, $75 million is almost literally nothing compared to the tens of billions of dollars awarded by the federal government to states and local municipalities across the country over the past 50 years to shape and expand their criminal justice system. But all of this money represents an extraordinarily powerful resource, if only it can be harnessed in the service of a new vision of criminal justice. Ferguson points the way, and MacArthur is taking the first step.

  • ingeborg oppenheimer


    one can also imagine that the apologizing officer’s career will be cut short in a system such as the one in which he works. it is hard not to compare the ferguson system with those used by dictators to conquer and run the lands in which they live.

  • The problem with the police is much the same as the problem with Israel – and the US: overarmed.

    The US produces too much military hardware, through funding with money taken from taxpayers. The federal government and its debt financing are the root of this problem, and follow-on problems ripple out from there to places as far away as the MIddle East.

    It’s Eisenhower’s old military-industrial-congressional [as originally conceived] complex, just like he said.

  • Freedom_First

    Joseph — You hacked away at the branches of evil but did not touch the root which is the thousands of pages of laws that criminalize basic human rights. The vast majority of individuals who are being arrested are one hundred percent innocent of any real crime. They have not assaulted or robbed anyone. They have not violated anyone’s rights. Millions of honest, decent human beings are being treated as criminals and, in many cases, they are being treated like they are worse than murderers. Military style assaults against peaceful people are now taking place in every city and town across the country. There are armies of SWAT goons behaving like Nazi lunatics.