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Ferguson court reform points to deeper concern for St. Louis

A judge in Ferguson, Mo., announced sweeping changes to the city's municipal court, including withdrawing nearly 10,000 arrest warrants. But the problems are systemic and reach beyond Ferguson, critics say.

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Police and protesters square off outside the Ferguson Police Department, in Ferguson, Mo., in this March file photo. Ferguson's new municipal judge Donald McCullin ordered massive changes Monday in the city's much-criticized municipal court, a move he said is aimed at restoring confidence in the system and easing the burden on needy defendants.

Jeff Roberson/AP/File

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Efforts to win back the trust of the black community in Ferguson, Mo., took another step this week, as a judge announced a blanket amnesty for arrests before the end of 2014.

But the plan presents its own challenge: The problems facing Ferguson’s municipal court are systemic, critics say, and affect dozens of its neighboring municipalities, too.

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Ferguson has been the focal point of America’s conversation on racial inequality and police aggression since violent protests overwhelmed the city in August 2014. During the past year, reforms to the city’s public institutions – from the police department to city hall – have gained national attention.

On Monday, a judge appointed by the city council in June to reform the municipal court unveiled a plan to withdraw all arrest warrants issued in the city before Dec. 31, 2014 – nearly 10,000 cases, according to The New York Times. Those defendants will receive new court dates, new options for pretrial, and new options for disposing of their cases, such as payment plans or community service.

A United States Justice Department report released in March found that the Ferguson Municipal Court worked with the police to raise revenue for the city through a harsh regime of fines and fees, often issuing arrest warrants when court appointments were missed or fees were not paid.

"Jail time would be considered far too harsh a penalty for the great majority of these code violations, yet Ferguson's municipal court routinely issues warrants for people to be arrested and incarcerated for failing to timely pay related fines and fees," the report stated.

Simmering anger at the fines imposed by the court and the police – which disproportionately fell on black residents – was seen by many observers as fuel for last summer's violence.

Monday's decision is welcome, say local activists. But it doesn't change that fact that the “the reality is the system is broken, not just in Ferguson but everywhere” in St. Louis County, says Brendan Roediger, a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law.

Ferguson Municipal Court is one of 83 municipal courts across St. Louis County that operate part-time. Critics say these part time courts constitute a numbingly complex patchwork of legal authority. Natural Bridge Road, for example, runs a mile south of Ferguson but crosses through eight different municipalities in a five-mile stretch, each one with its own court system.

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If someone drives on Natural Bridge Road with a broken taillight, he could end up with eight traffic tickets and eight fines, notes Michael-John Voss, co-founder of ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit legal aid organization in St. Louis.

The concern is that the system is too complex for adequate oversight. With this lack of oversight, many of the courts – like Ferguson's – have been run for municipal profit, critics say. Court fees and fines were the largest source of revenue for 14 municipalities in St. Louis County in 2013, according to a 2014 report by Better Together St. Louis, a nonprofit project that analyzes at local government. 

But the problems go deeper, Mr. Voss adds.

On average, St. Louis County municipal courts hold about two court sessions a month, according to the Better Together report. The court in Upland, Mo., near Ferguson, for one, has moved to holding court sessions once a quarter, Voss notes.

If you are arrested for failure to pay a fine and can’t afford to post bail, Voss says, "You might be sitting in jail for a couple of weeks.”

And given the sheer number of courts, the system also requires legal professionals – and even private attorneys – to serve multiple roles in different courts.

For example, Ronald Brockmeyer – who stepped down as judge of the Ferguson municipal court after the release of the Justice Department report – also served as city prosecutor in nearby Florissant and as judge in Breckenridge Hills, according to The Washington Post.

Local attorneys and judges say the system is born of necessity.

“In some of these towns, you just don’t have very many attorneys,” Frank Vatterott, a judge in Overland, Mo., told the Post last September. “The towns also aren’t big enough for the positions to be full-time...”

Mr. Vatterott helped form the Municipal Court Improvement Committee (MCIC), a group of local judges and attorneys proposing internal reforms, such as capping the amount of revenue a city can generate from court fines. A second group, the Ferguson Commission appointed by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, has proposed a more radical measure: abolishing the part-time municipal court system and consolidating it into a handful of full-time regional courts under the supervision of the state Supreme Court.

Adovcates of such reforms say this would save money by eliminating redundancies. An ArchCity Defenders report released this month estimated that a regional court system involving four full-time professional courts would cost between $6 million and $8 million a year. The Better Together report found that the aggregate cost of St. Louis County’s municipal courts was $15.8 million in 2013.

“The changes in Ferguson are going to impact a small minority of people in our region," Voss says. "What we have to do is make broader changes for everybody in St. Louis.”