Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Courts Giveth & Courts Taketh Away - Legal Reforms in Ferguson & 'Unstructured Settlements' For Lead Poisoning Victims in Baltmore

Ferguson Judge Donald McCullin
The recent changes to the way in which the much-derided municipal courts in Ferguson, Missouri fundamentally operate illustrate that while the wheels of the dysfunctional American justice system may be slow to turn, they can indeed rotate in response to the demands of citizens, politicians, activists, clergy and the legal professionals who advocate on behalf of the disadvantaged.     
The internal gears of Ferguson's court systems are slowly beginning to grind against ingrained injustice, but it's a positive sign that they no longer grind exclusively against the poor and citizens of color.

It's not a magical cure-all, but perhaps it will lend some measure of meaning to the senseless death of unarmed American teenager Michael Brown at the hands of former Ferguson PD officer Darren Wilson.

On Monday recently-appointed 74-year old Ferguson municipal Judge Donald McCullin (pictured above) ordered sweeping changes to overhaul a court system that was essentially functioning as a revenue machine fueled disproportionately by the targeted persecution of working class and poor black citizens for a laundry list of minor legal infractions unfairly enforced by the Ferguson Police Department.  

McCullin ordered all warrants issued prior to December 2014 to be voided, and also radically altered sentencing for minor infractions like traffic violations with carefully structured payment plans based on defendant's income, or community service options in lieu of fees.

The legal changes, including revoking arrest warrants for 'failure to appear' charges based on minor infractions, represent significant and concrete legal reforms that could serve as a model for other communities in America.

While a number of news outlets covered the story, the coverage paled in comparison to the recent televised coverage of the street protests that accompanied the one year anniversary of Michael Brown's killing.

Does that which might be seen as the potentially negative hold more attraction for mainstream media than the sorts of positive systematic changes to the Ferguson court system ordered by Judge McCullin?

Sample of recent American "riot" headlines - [Photo - AJR]
The old media adage "If it bleeds it leads" seems to hold true these days.

In almost any American city where the potential for civil unrest or protest in the wake of the death of frequently-unarmed citizens of color occurs, a swarm of news trucks, photographers and reporters is quick to materialize; ready to beam carefully-edited images of people of color "rioting" out across the globe and chronicle chaos. 

That coverage is not always objective.

The ghosts of the devastating riots that erupted in cities across the nation in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968 still haunt this nation; spawning something of a morbid cautionary fascination with many segments of mainstream media who always seem prepared to cover the worst of urban America when citizen outrage spills over into the streets.

On Monday, Judge McCullin's changes represented an important step in addressing some of that citizen outrage which still simmers in Ferguson.

Anger which can't be expected to simply vanish after decades of no legal redress and no prosecution for Darren Wilson for shooting and killing an unarmed black teen.

McCullin was unanimously appointed by the Ferguson city council back in June to replace Judge Roy Richter who'd been appointed by the Missouri Supreme Court in the wake of the release of the scathing review of the Ferguson courts and police department conducted by the Department of Justice.

McCullin's appointment was part of the comprehensive purge of the Ferguson court system to remove those who'd overseen its years of systematic and targeted abuse of the legal rights of thousands of African-American citizens.

On the law enforcement side, long gone are former Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson and other top officers from the department.

On the court side, also gone is the infamous Ferguson court clerk Mary Ann Twitty, the internal functionary who piously wielded her Magic Wand to make tickets disappear for friends and relatives, or processed the paper work for the thousands of bogus unjustified tickets (for crap like "Manner of Walking"), arrest warrants, inflated court fines and car seizures that overwhelmingly impacted black citizens. 

But while Judge McCullin's overhaul of the Ferguson courts illustrates an example of positive legal reform in an age where the issue of mass incarceration has now come under increased scrutiny, there's clearly still a long way to go.

The wheels of the court system's still grind against justice too.

Lead poisoned Baltimore row houses [Photo-Washington Post]

Terrence McCoy's truly disturbing article in yesterday's Washington Post chronicles how companies specifically target and profit of the lead poisoning of mostly poor African-Americans from Baltimore is an unfortunate reminder that the dysfunction of the American court system runs deep, and in many cases still functions as an accomplice to systematic discrimination based on race and ethnicity.

If you click the link above it's actually a difficult article to read.

As McCoy reveals in his article, companies like Access Funding methodically scour public court records of the financial court settlements awarded to mostly black victims of serious life-altering lead poisoning, then send smooth-talking representatives out into the streets of Baltimore to track them down like prey.    

Many of these lead poisoning victims suffer permanent, diminished intellectual capacity and debilitating mental side affects after years of exposure to the toxic lead paint common in row houses in poor sections of Baltimore like the ones seen in the photo above.

These unsuspecting victims are mislead and manipulated into signing away guaranteed-for life monthly settlement payments in exchange for sketchy one-time 'unstructured settlements' replete with complex contractual language and vague explanations of the financial terms.

In short, many are duped into signing away life-time benefits worth hundreds of thousands of dollars for paltry lump sums that translate into pennies on the dollar.

It's a moral, ethical and legal disgrace, but the companies do it routinely by filing legal documents in courts outside of Baltimore where there's less scrutiny of the terms allowing these companies to rip off people's medical benefits.

McCoy's Washington Post article is Pulitzer Prize-worthy material and not to be missed.

But more importantly it sheds light on the dark corners of the American legal system which continues to be an accomplice to the financial and legal victimization of people of color; a legal system that in this case, truly is blind.

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