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Advocacy Group Proposes Municipal Court Reforms. How Do They Compare?

Protesters outside St. Louis County headquarters on Feb. 2, 2015 call for reforms of the municipal court system.
File photo by Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio

On Friday, personnel from most of the 82 municipal courts in St. Louis County took a first look at voluntary reforms to their courts proposed by the St. Louis County Municipal Court Improvement Committee. 

On Monday, the advocacy group Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment unveiled their own reform proposals.  

"These are not courts as we know them," said MORE's executive director Jeff Ordower. "These are predatory collection agencies on the backs of people of color, and on the backs of the poorest people in the county. And that is why we need to transform and abolish the racist municipal court system in St. Louis County."

Though the groups are coming at the topic from very different angles, some of the proposed reforms are very similar. 

  • MORE Proposed Reform 1 -- eliminate all outstanding fines and fees, and permanently cancel all warrants.

This is unlikely to happen. As many court personnel noted on Friday, just because an individual cannot pay the fine or fee for a traffic violation does not make them less of a safety risk on the road. And as Frank Vatterott, the municipal judge in Overland and the head of the improvement committee told St. Louis Public Radio in December, many people who get warrants simply don't take the warrant seriously.

"The truth is, a lot of people say, 'Well, I just thought you’d forgot about it,' or, 'I didn’t think you were serious when you said you were going to issue a warrant'," he said.

The fines and fees can also provide more than a quarter of a city's general revenue fund. Area mayors sayany funding reductions could limit money available for things like police training.

  • MORE Proposed Reform 2 -- Abolishing or consolidating the municipal court system

Municipal courts by law are a creation of their cities. It would take votes of the legislative bodies of the cities to eliminate them. Therefore, the court improvement committee could not address the issue.
Ordower said that county executive Steve Stenger should use the bully pulpit of his office to encourage consolidation.

He can also pay attention to the ways in which the county government interacts with municipal governments and try "to change the way the business relationship between the county and these municipalities is structured until they abolish their municipal courts and have real justice," Ordower said.

Stenger issued the following written statement:

"During my campaign, I talked about the need for changes in the courts located in St. Louis County municipalities. Among other things, I would like to see these courts reduce fines and costs for indigent defendants.  The courts also need to give some latitude regarding warrants issued for failure to appear. I will support any reasonable state legislation that addresses the current problems."

  • MORE Proposed Reform 3 -- Abolishing jail time as a punishment for non-violent offenses.

The court improvement committee does not specifically address this area, and the MORE report does not give examples.
One of the biggest complaints with the municipal court system is failure-to-appear warrants that result from a person missing a court date because they cannot pay and are afraid to go to court. Judges cannot throw someone in jail for being unable to pay, But they can -- and do -- issue bench warrants if someone does not show up to court.

  • MORE Proposed Reform 4 -- Assessing fines for non-violent offenders in proportion to income.

​The improvement committee is encouraging municipal courts to establish uniform payment plans for fines and fees. In some cases, they are now required by a Supreme Court of Missouri rule that takes effect in July. However, the fines themselves are not adjusted based on the ability of people to pay.

The city of St. Louis announced in December that it would take into account the ability of a person to pay when setting the fines and fees.

  • MORE Proposed Reform 5 -- Capping the amount of revenue generated by municipal courts at $5 per resident.

The current Missouri law, known as Mack's Creek, allows cities and villages to collect as much as 30 percent of their general operating budget from traffic fines and fees. An effort is underway to cap that at 10 percent. MORE's proposed cap would go even further. For example, Ferguson's projected general fund revenue for fiscal year 2015 was about $13.3 million. It can take in up to about $4 million under the current Mack's Creek limit, or about $1.3 million under the proposed 10 percent cap, from traffic fines.

Ferguson had a population of just over 21,000 at the last census. If MORE's reform went into effect, the city could only take in about $105,000 -- far below the nearly $3 million in projected municipal court revenue for the 2015 budget.

The court improvement committee did not address the issue of capping revenue in its report.

  • MORE Proposed Reform 6 -- Offering a form of community service known as "timebanking" to defendants.

As defined in MORE's report, a time bank is "a network of people engaged in a reciprocal exchange of services, skills and goods through a web in which the currency is an hour of time instead of money."
Courts are already allowed by law to offer community service as an option. The improvement committee does not specify what type of community service should be available, but strongly encourages courts to use it as an alternative.

  • MORE Proposed Reform 7 - Eliminating the failure to appear charge.

Any change to municipal or state statute requires a vote by the appropriate legislative body. Therefore, the court improvement committee, which is focusing on internal change, made no recommendation on that point.

  • MORE Proposed Reform 8 - Providing public defenders to indigent people.

Missouri's court operating rules allow a person to be represented by an attorney when appearing at a municipal court. But a municipal judge is only required to appoint counsel if the violation might result in jail time, and a public defender is required only when a defendant is found to be indigent.

The court improvement committee recommends that courts make it clearer when defendants are eligible for a public defenders, and is encouraging courts to make volunteer lawyers available to provide legal advice. MORE wants public defenders assigned in all municipal cases where the defendant is indigent, because a lawyer can significantly swing the outcome of an ordinance violation case.

  • MORE Proposed Reform 9 -- Eliminating the suspension of a license for a failure to appear warrant

This requires a legislative change, and hence the improvement committee did not comment or make a recommendation.

  • MORE Proposed Reform 10 -- Additional accountability mechanisms around racial profiling.

"Racial profiling has led us to inundate all the courts," said Reginald Rounds, a city of St. Louis resident and MORE activist. "We outnumber anyone in this situation."
The state already collects data on traffic stops. MORE is supporting an effort that would increase the amount of information that has to be collected.

The improvement committee did not comment or make a recommendation on racial profiling.

MORE also wants to establish a system that would allow a defendant to handle payment for warrants issued by any municipality. Vatterott, the head of the court improvement committee, said he was investigating what would be required to establish that system.

Ordower, MORE's executive director, gave the improvement committee some credit for being willing to to implement some modest reforms. But he said it remains a situation of the fox guarding the henhouse.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

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