When I started as a Kentucky public defender back in 1977, I was initially an appellate lawyer for three years, and then in a unit that among other things trained, oversaw local assigned counsel, and handled capital cases.  Thereafter, I opened up a trial office and continued to represent persons in major felonies, until I was appointed Public Advocate in 1996.  I suffered as a young lawyer from an inflated view of my own worth.  I thought that I should only be given big cases, the uglier the better.  Small cases, like low level felonies, were not worth my time.  Misdemeanors were to be ignored.  And violations—why did they even need a lawyer?

And then came Ferguson, my home town.  I watched as Ferguson burned.  I shuddered when Darren Wilson was not indicted, and Ferguson burned again.  And then I read the DOJ Report and other media coverage.  And guess what, I found that part of the context for all that energy, all that dissatisfaction, all that rage, was in part anger over how the city of Ferguson had decided to handle municipal violations.  Yes, municipal violations.  Never again will I dismiss the importance of “small cases.” 

If you don’t know much about this, watch this piece from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, who pillories America over this issue.  Kate Mason, Chief Public Defender of the Augusta, Georgia office, brought this to my attention.  In a little over 17 minutes, Oliver discusses what has happened to America during the past 40 years that produced Ferguson and is likely to be the tinder for any other ugly confrontations with the police. 

Oliver tells stories.  He tells the story of Harriet Cleveland and how one day she went from taking care of her grandbabies to going to jail.  She was jailed for her inability to pay traffic tickets.  Ultimately she lost her car and her utilities were shut off.  Despite paying part of the fine countless times, and at one point a lump sum of over $2000, she remained unable to fully pay off the fine and attendant interest and other fees. 

Or take the case of Tom Barret, who stole a $2 beer.  Barrett was unable to pay the initially small fine and was referred to a private probation company named Sentinel, which in turn attached a leg monitor to him that cost him $360 per month.  Barret started selling plasma in order to pay the $12 per month Sentinel charged him.  He was jailed three times for his inability to pay.  The City spent $3000 to jail him repeatedly for his inability to pay. 

Oliver brings out data.  Oliver’s piece is replete with data.  A few examples:  he noted that Ferguson obtained 30|PERCENT| of its municipal budget from fines and fees.  Police promotions were based upon how many tickets an officer was writing.  In nearby Calverton Park, 66|PERCENT| of their budget was paid for by traffic tickets.  It’s not just Ferguson.  In Florida, 88|PERCENT| of license suspensions were as a result of failure to pay traffic tickets.  In New Jersey, a majority of low income drivers lost their job as a result of the failure to pay. 

ArchCity Defenders is doing something about this.  In Ferguson, and in St. Louis County, there is a small but mighty group of public interest lawyers attacking this problem.  They have been representing persons in St. Louis County on municipal violations, they have testified before the Missouri legislature, and they have filed suit.  No case has been “too small” for Thomas Harvey and his band of warriors for justice.

NAPD is also deciding what should be our involvement in the issue.  A group of NAPD members has also taken on this issue.  Led by Janene McCabe of the Colorado Public Defender’s Office and Thomas Harvey of ArchCity Defenders, this NAPD task force has been meeting for several months discussing what should be done about this national disgrace.  They have been working on a statement of principles, first drafted by Ohio Public Defender Tim Young and Kentucky Public Advocate Ed Monahan.  This statement is in its final drafting.  Watch for it.

So I have learned a big lesson.  Poor people can be hurt by the criminal justice system in many ways.  They can of course be arrested and their liberty can be taken away.  They can be charged with a crime that they did not commit and be imprisoned for decades.  They can be harassed and arrested based not on their behavior but on the color of their skin.  And yes, they can have their lives turned upside down for not having enough money to pay for a $2 can of beer.  Folks, we need to do something about this.