Teaching Law and Political Economy through Keilee Fant v. City of Ferguson, Missouri Part II
Angela Harris –
In my first post on Fant v. Ferguson, I introduced the case as a story about our racialized criminal justice system. The criminal justice story, however, represents only one layer of the onion. Like its fast counterpart, the slow violence experienced by Keilee Fant is embedded in a larger system of structural economic inequality that we call “poverty.” Thomas Harvey, a co-founder of the St Louis public interest law firm ArchCity Defenders, which represented Keilee Fant in the case, has commented, “These aren’t violent criminals. These are people who make the same mistakes you or I do – speeding, not wearing a seatbelt, forgetting to get your car inspected on time. The difference is that they don’t have the money to pay the fines. Or they have kids, or jobs that don’t allow them to take time off for two or three court appearances. When you can’t pay the fines, you get fined for that, too. And when you can’t get to court, you get an arrest warrant.”
The world my students learn about in my first-year Criminal Law course contains references to the spectacles of violent black death we now associate with Ferguson, Missouri. But criminal law classes seldom touch on the mundane world represented in the Fant complaint. As criminal justice scholar Alexandra Natapoff notes, that there are really two criminal justice systems in America. There are about 1 million felony convictions in the United States every year. Meanwhile, there are about ten million misdemeanor convictions, and even more “infractions” – offenses, like traffic tickets, that are technically not crimes at all, and yet are tied to the criminal justice system through fines and fees. The felony system is a familiar, Law and Order world of grand juries, felony charges, and parties represented by counsel. The misdemeanor system produces many of the same bad collateral consequences for people who are convicted, including potential loss of state benefits, loss of employment and housing, loss of eligibility for professional licenses, family disruption, and possible deportation — but without the procedural protections available to felony defendants. Misdemeanants routinely lack access to legal representation. Their cases are handled en masse, not individually. Their claims are speedily dispensed with by plea deals that ignore questions of guilt or innocence. All the while, the individuals – black, brown, and “not quite white” – consigned by poverty to this legal underworld are treated with disdain by overworked prosecutors, judges, and defense counsel, who see them as congenitally dysfunctional “mopes.”
From this perspective, the misdemeanor criminal justice system is one element in a sprawling system of surveillance, punitive discipline, and control that makes the lives of poor people profoundly unfree. Poor people live their lives under the control of government programs that all too often start with the assumption that they are lazy, immoral, and in need of guidance and punishment. Our “welfare” system and our foster care system, for example, are built around the assumption that people receiving government assistance are likely to commit fraud. As sociologists like Kaaryn Gustafson have shown, welfare bureaucracies are so focused on punitive action that they incentivize the very fraud they punish. They are also institutionally invested in restructuring the family lives of poor people, whether the goal is to make them get married, stop them from having so many children, or keep them from having abortions – as Julie Nice and others have demonstrated.
Within this second frame, Fant v. Ferguson is a story about “neoliberalism” – an overused but still helpful word that calls attention to the shrinking social welfare state, the transmission of financial risk from government institutions to households, and the widely-held assumption that market governance is superior to democratic governance in nearly every sector of public life.