The Justice Department's investigation into the Ferguson, Mo. police department determined that, among other things, the department and local courts treated policing as a way to make money for the city, with a disproportionate share of that burden falling on black residents. But Ferguson isn't an isolated case: municipal fines are out of control in the U.S., and people who can't afford to pay are going to jail for them.
John Oliver dedicated the long piece on Sunday's Last Week Tonight to this modern-day debtor's prison—he calls it "the fuck barrel"—where fines make up more than half of some towns' revenues, and a traffic ticket can put a low-income person in an inescapable spiral of additional fees and eventually land them in jail.
The most galling aspects of the fuck barrel include the private companies who land contracts to operate it, and then bleed jaywalkers, loiterers, and traffic violators dry before locking them up in city facilities at taxpayers' expense.
One man explained how he had to forego food and start donating plasma in an attempt to pay Sentinel Offender Services $360 a month for the ankle bracelet they put on him. He was locked up over the fines three separate times.
The offense that warranted this horrible punishment? He stole a $2 beer.
Shut down the fuck barrel.