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Latest municipal court reform idea: a smartphone app

Steakpinball | Flickr

In the past year and a half, St. Louis County’s municipal courts have a handful of self-reforms like recalling warrants and standardizing traffic fines.

Now, they’re turning their attention to technology for the newest effort at improving the way courts run.

Officials are developing a smartphone app that literally puts information about municipal courts into people’s pockets.

Overland Judge Frank Vatterott, head of the St. Louis County Municipal Court Improvement Committee, said the app will do things like:

  • Look up a person’s court date
  • Show them alternatives to resolving their case, like community service
  • Give payment options
  • Show them how to get a continuance with the court

 “(The app will)  also have a texting feature which would remind you of your court date.” Vatterott said in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio’s We Live Hereteam. “It would cut down on the failure-to-appears. That would be a dramatic change. We’re really excited about it.”

Vatterott said the new smartphone app could help more people avoid warrants for skipping court because they couldn’t make it, forgot or simply didn’t know when they were expected to be there. 

That can be an issue here because there are so many municipal courts that meet at different times.

“It would allow people who are uninformed or disorganized to come to court,” Vatterott said, “and that would lessen the incarceration,  which is our goal.” 

The municipal court app is modeled after a similar project in Atlanta. 

It could debut for St. Louis users sometime this spring, Vatterott said.

Atlanta officials said the app has been successful so far. They launched theirs about a year and a half ago. 

“At the time there were roughly 40,000 failures-to-appear every year here in the city of Atlanta,” said Ryan Shepard, the municipal court administrator. “When you miss court, a bunch of things happen that are generally not positive. A warrant is typically issued for your arrest. There is a contempt fee that can be charged for missing court. We just … didn't want to see folks end up down that path.”

Shepard said authorities are already starting to see fewer people getting failure-to-appear charges since they began promoting the app. 

Since July, he said, 3,500 people were able to request a different court date -- potentially saving them from additional criminal charges for not showing up.

And traffic to the Atlanta court’s website went from 5,000 monthly visitors to 40,000, Shepard said. 

Atlanta worked with an organization called Code for America on the app. St. Louis is doing the same thing, along with other local partners like CivTech St. Louis.

The app project is part of reform efforts funded by a MacArthur Foundation grant that St. Louis County received in 2015.

Chris Graville, a prosecutor for a handful of St. Louis County municipal courts, said he sees value in the app. 

Many people already get most of their information from smartphones anyway, he said. 

“Honestly I think it’s a tool for the courts to catch up with technology,” Graville said. 

Graville is on the municipal court committee that Vatterott chairs.

Both men said that the past year and a half has shown that there’s a huge gap between the county’s municipal courts and the people who use them.

Graville said if the app closes that gap and helps people resolve their matters more efficiently, it’ll be a success. 

“If I got a ticket, I’d sign up for it,” he said. 

Follow Kameel on Twitter: @cornandpotatoes

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.