Document Type



Investigations in Ferguson, Missouri, revealed that many individuals, particularly Black people, entered the criminal justice system for relatively minor offenses, missed court appearances, or failure to pay fines. Municipal courts were focused on revenue generation, which led to aggressive enforcement of municipal codes. Although subsequent reforms were passed, little is known about whether and how the legislative changes influenced the law-in-action in the municipal courts. Using data from qualitative interviews with St. Louis area residents and regional court actors, as well as court observations, this article documents the legal structure of municipal courts in the region after Ferguson. We address how the parochial nature of municipal courts in St. Louis County perpetuates the financial marginalization of residents through the layering of punishment, and how the state legal structure further facilitates control, even after reform.Misdemeanor arrests are the most prevalent form of social control in the criminal justice system and make up three-quarters of all criminal cases filed—a total of thirteen million cases each year, most for relatively minor offenses (Stevenson and Mayson 2018). The scope and implications of misdemeanor arrests came to light to many after the shooting death of Michael Brown, a Black man, in Ferguson, Missouri, a St. Louis County suburb. An investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) exposed a practice of generating revenue through law enforcement, particularly the aggressive enforcement of municipal code violations, and by court actors issuing warrants for missed court appearances and payments, a practice commonplace in the region. In 2013, a little over 20 percent of the city of Ferguson Missouri’s total revenue came from the payment of legal financial obligations (DOJ 2015). Josh Page and Joe Soss (2017, 142) contend that “what the DOJ discovered in Ferguson is not exceptional in relation to the past or present of US governance.” They characterize monetary sanctions as financial predation of marginalized communities—stemming from a long history of race and class control sustained in an era of neoliberal governance. Aggressive enforcement, particularly of lower-level offenses, unduly affects Black people, who were more likely to be stopped and arrested by police, had longer case processing times, were required to make multiple court appearances, and have their cases lead to a warrant (Ferguson Commission 2015).Scholars and policymakers have written broadly on the use of monetary sanctions in Ferguson and elsewhere (DOJ 2015; Harris 2016; Rios 2019). This work adds to previous writing in several ways. First, we seek to address how the legal structure of municipal courts in St. Louis County influences justice in the context of monetary sanctions. We deepen the work on legal financial obligations, or LFOs, by considering small contacts with the justice system, whereas much of the foundational work in this space has been conducted with felony courts (Harris 2016). Particularly, we consider how the parochial nature of the municipal courts has assisted in the maintenance of monetary sanctions as a broad system of control past the writing of the Ferguson report and passage of associated reforms. Secondarily, we document how state legal structures further perpetuate the cycle of control and extend and deepen the consequences of a criminal conviction, particularly for people of color and individuals with fewer economic means.To do so, we draw on data from interviews and court observations to examine how individuals with legal debt and court actors characterize their experiences with the municipal courts in the St. Louis region in the context of monetary sanctions. We describe how the independent structure of the municipal courts in the St. Louis area facilitates the need for revenue generation tactics such that individuals living in poverty and persons of color get trapped in a revolving door of misdemeanor justice, a phenomenon deemed the muni-shuffle. We define the muni-shuffle as the process by which parochial governance fosters low-level, routine interaction with the police and courts and sustains such contact by limiting remedies for resolving debt, including the monetization of legal representation, and fragmenting information flow between municipalities and to citizens. Municipal sanctions, primarily traffic tickets, unduly target and affect people with fewer economic means and people of color (Hepburn, Kohler-Hausmann, and Medina 2019), and the associated sanctions and conditions of compliance tether people to the system (Harris, Evans, and Beckett 2010; Pattillo and Kirk 2021). We contend that the lack of oversight on the part of the state combined with the individualistic, racialized construction of municipalities has allowed these systems of control to continue since Ferguson.

Publication Date

January 2022

Publication Title

RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences