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Municipal Court Personnel Get First Peek At Proposed Reforms Post-Ferguson

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Officials from most of St. Louis County's 82 municipal courts got their first look Friday at proposed reforms designed to respond to concerns about the courts raised in the wake of the August shooting death of Michael Brown.  

The St. Louis County Municipal Court Improvement Committee is comprised of court personnel, including judges, prosecutors, administrators and defense attorneys. James Clark of the social service agency Better Family Life is also on the committee.

The draft the voluntary reforms includes:

  • Making volunteer lawyers available on municipal court dates to offer legal advice to defendants who are not facing jail time for their offenses and therefore do not qualify for a public defender.
  • Making it clearer when defendants are eligible for a public defender.
  • Encouraging the use of community service for indigent offenders.
  • Setting uniform fines across all municipal courts for identical offenses. A survey done by the improvement committee found that a fine for driving without insurance, for example, ranged from a low of $99 in Bridgeton to $377 in Ferguson.
  • Establishing uniform procedures for payment plans for indigent defendants, which are now required in some circumstances by a new Supreme Court of Missouri rule that takes effect in July.
  • Setting basic court operating rules, such as allowing defendants inside before court opens, and having people available to answer the phones during regular business hours.

"We have to do it ourselves," said Frank Vatterott, the chair of the court improvement committee and a municipal judge in Overland. "If we can do it ourselves, instead of letting someone else do it, we can tailor it in a way that's best suited for the court that has to take care of the city and the defendant."
Courts are already permitted by state law and judicial operating rules to do many of the proposed reforms, such as alternative community service. The idea, Vatterott said, is to encourage the courts voluntarily to adopt orders that would commit them to the reforms until the order is changed.

"We believe that if we do this correctly, it'll be a sea change for municipal courts," he said.

Personnel from 74 of the 75 largest county courts attended Friday's presentation. Vatterott said he was pleased with the interest shown in and acceptance of many of the ideas. But a leading advocate for municipal court reform said the proposals don't go far enough.

"The very composition of this committee limits whatever reforms they may propose," said Thomas Harvey, the executive director of the Arch City Defenders. "Such a committee will never propose abolishing courts, consolidating courts in a way that would potentially risk employment for members of the committee."

Court consolidation can't happen without approval by city councils, Vatterott said.

Former Hazelwood mayor T.R. Carr, a member of the Ferguson Commission focusing on court reforms, said the proposals from the improvement committee addressed most of the concerns he had heard at the commission's meeting on courts.

"We're seeing a group of individuals meeting to address issues that affect us as a region, and that gives me great hope for the future," Carr said.

Vatterott said he expects courts to start signing orders making some of the proposed reforms in April.

Amnesty Numbers

Also on Friday, the improvement committee revealed the final numbers of a December warrant forgiveness program.More than 2,700 defendants posted a bond to clear arrest warrants on municipal fines and got a new court date. That's a small percentage of the currently active warrants in the 74 courts that participated.

Florissant led the pack with 237 new court dates. Ferguson was right behind with 236.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.