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Study finds stark differences in municipal court experiences based on race and class

Saint Louis University professor Ken Warren oversaw a municipal court poll this fall, where residents in rich and poor communities in the St. Louis region were asked about their experience.
Kameel Stanley
St. Louis Public Radio

A survey of more than 750 people shows big differences in the way residents in the St. Louis area experience municipal courts.

That’s according to a study by researchers at Saint Louis University, who spent the last couple months polling people paying traffic and municipal fines in wealthy and poor communities.

“It’s going to take us quite a long time to go through this data,” said SLU political science professor and veteran pollster Ken Warren.

To get the data, residents were asked to fill out a 28-question survey that asked about everything from their experience with judges who ruled on their case to the police officers who issued the violation that landed them in court in the first place.

One of the starkest findings so far, Warren said, is the fact that more than two-thirds of those surveyed said they didn’t believe their traffic stops had anything to do with public safety.

“That’s a very disturbing finding because it’s what political scientists have found to cause a lot of cynicism,” Warren said.

Researchers also found:

  • People from affluent communities viewed their experience more positively than those in less wealthy places.
  • White respondents perceived their treatment more positively than blacks, who also were more likely to believe their traffic stop was tied to racial profiling.

The SLU researchers believe this is the first study of its kind in the country.
“I think the issue didn’t materialize in any big way until the death of Michael Brown and Ferguson, which brought to the fore many of the issues that places like our law clinic and ArchCity Defenders were examining with respect to traffic tickets and municipal court violations and the court system,” said Henry Ordower, a law professor at SLU. “It kind of brought the two issues together.”

Ordower put the research group together. Warren brought his polling expertise.Ness Sandoval, an associate sociology professor, has been studying urban inequality.

Sandoval said the study comes at the right time, and could be a good tool for officials who are debating overhauls in the municipal court systems here.

“We’re trying to get at an empirical understanding of what inequality looks like,” Sandoval said. “We have pretty good data that shows what demographic inequality looks like, what economic equality looks like. Now we want to see if this is associated with how people perceive their experience.”

The university gave the professors a $50,000 grant to conduct their research. They expect to release more findings later this winter.

Kameel Stanley co-hosted and co-produced the We Live Here podcast—covering race, class, power, and poverty in the St. Louis Region—from 2015 to 2018.