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ArchCity Defenders makes guide to help people maneuver legal system

David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
ArchCity Defenders is creating a self-advocating guide for people to use if they have an encounter with the police, jail or the courts. The guide is called Pro Se STL.

A non-profit civil rights law firm wants to help people help themselves when they’re in legal trouble.

ArchCity Defenders created the guide known as Pro Se STL. The guide’s namesake, pro se, comes from the Latin term that means “for oneself.” It's aimed at helping people advocate and protect themselves when they have interactions with law enforcement, go to jail or in the courtroom.

Executive director Blake Strode said the guide is particularly helpful for those who don’t have representation, because they can’t afford the standard legal fees.

“People that can’t afford an attorney, can’t afford to simply pay a ticket and find themselves standing before a judge in municipal court, it’s useful for anyone that wants to know what their rights are, what they can say to the judge if they are indigent and can’t afford fines,” Strode said. “[And] how they can invoke their rights in that situation.”

More than 90 percent of people throughout the St. Louis region that walk into a municipal courtroom go without representation, according to ArchCity Defenders. Strode said that’s especially true in low-income people of color, who are often overpoliced and overticketed.

“The vast majority of people who find themselves physically present in municipal courts in St. Louis are there because they can’t afford to pay for a lawyer, and they also can’t afford to buy their way out of the system as many other people do on a daily basis,” Strode said.

Because they are more likely not to have legal representation at their side, Strode said that can result in a trickle down effect of problems. That includes accepting fines and fees they can’t pay for, pleading guilty to crimes, loss of employment, cars and time spent in jail.

“We know that many of these systems just don’t work for poor black people and one part of the fight is attacking those systems themselves,” he said. “But another part of the fight is to arm people with the tools that they need just to navigate these systems in real time.”

The 11-by-17 inch foldable pocket-sized guide offers solutions for real time scenarios, including what to do if you’re stopped by the police, how to get released from jail, how to deal with a ticket, knowing your rights in court and even how to dress for your court date.

Before the group launches the official guide in June, it is seeking help from artists and designers to develop the overall look of the guide.

Caitlin Metz, an illustrator and designer who is working with the ArchCity Defenders to create the guide, said the goal is to make Pro Se STL user-friendly and easy to navigate.

“Because this information is often really complex or difficult to understand,” Metz said. “It’s confusing. It’s a really stressful situation, and so we hope through the power of design and visual language to create something that is engaging and easily understood.”

ArchCity Defenders is accepting design submissionsthrough May 14. 

Follow Marissanne on Twitter @Marissanne2011

Marissanne is the afternoon newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.