Plans to reform the city of Ferguson, Missouri's criminal justice system, which was harshly criticized in a 2015 Justice Department report, were abruptly changed in a city council vote Tuesday.
The council unilaterally agreed to alter a carefully negotiated agreement designed to avoid a federal lawsuit over a justice system more concerned with generating revenue that protecting public safety, according to the Justice Department.
The seven amendments were passed due to concerns over costs of implementing reforms.
In response, Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, condemned the city council for creating an “unnecessary delay in the essential work to bring constitutional policing to the city …” and wrongly altering an agreement that took over seven months of negotiations to reach. The Justice Department followed their criticism Wednesday by threatening legal action.
“The Department of Justice will take the necessary legal actions to ensure that Ferguson’s policing and court practices comply with the Constitution and relevant federal laws,” Ms. Gupta said in a statement.
Ferguson’s last-minute amendments represent a first in a more than two-decade history of consent decrees.
“I have never heard of that before,” Dr. Samuel Walker, professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska, tells The Christian Science Monitor in reference to the last minute amendments.
Consent decrees allow cities found lacking by the federal government to avoid admissions of guilt and lawsuits by volunteering to make changes.
“The city’s statement was that they are not seeking to reopen negotiations. Well, they are. They cannot just unilaterally change the agreement,” Dr. Walker says.
Consent decrees have been negotiated between the Justice Department and more than 20 US cities across the nation. Cities still under consent decrees range from Los Angeles and Seattle to Cleveland and New Orleans.
Despite the diversity, the reform goals for each of the cities are similar – the aim is to bring policing policies up to constitutional levels. They are all designed to reduce bias, improve transparency, and, as it states in Ferguson’s 127-page proposed consent decree, refocus “use-of-force policies toward de-escalation and avoiding force."
Ferguson’s consent decree does have some unique policies, but only to address systematic problems found in the city’s policing. The Justice Department inquiry found Ferguson had “abandoned any attempt at establishing relations with the community in favor of a strategy of making money through law enforcement.”
To fix this problem, unique solutions like changes to the municipal code to limit fines and jail time for small infractions and other sweeping changes to the court are required, according to the consent decree.
Ferguson’s other notable difference from the list of cities under consent decree is its size.
Where cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, Cleveland, and New Orleans have large, urban populations, Ferguson has a population of 21,000. City council members who suggested the amendments were concerned the city's size and budget would be too small to handle the reforms, according to NPR.
The Associated Press estimated Ferguson has a working budget of $14.5 million. The costs of the reform goals were estimated at around “$2.2 million to $3.7 million to implement” for the first year and “$1.8 million to $3 million in the second and third years.”
In a statement, the NAACP rejected Ferguson’s concerns of the reform being prohibitively expensive, but the numbers do suggest consent decrees can be a financial burden, even for larger cities.
Carl Marquardt, of the Seattle mayor’s office reported at a 2013 Police Executive Research Forum that the city of Seattle had calculated an overall cost of $40 million for its consent decree. Los Angeles Police Commander Scott Kroeber reported $15 million in costs for L.A. Other cities showed similar numbers.
However, when it comes to whether the Justice Department will be receptive to amendments to make civil rights reform affordable, it looks unlikely Ferguson will find much leeway.
“Consent decrees are always expensive,” Walker said. “The due process clause of the 14th Amendment does not have a financial exigency clause. You know, ‘no state shall deny a citizen due process of law … unless the city thinks it has other more important things to do.’ ”