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Court reform should start with complete amnesty

We agree with many critics of the current municipal court system, including community activists, grass-roots organizations and Saint Louis University’s Law Clinic, who have consistently advocated for the elimination of the current court systems.

We are cautiously optimistic that the Missouri Supreme Court’s Municipal Division Work Group, co-chaired by attorney and former Judge Booker T. Shaw, will grasp this historic moment by recommending structural changes that bring about real justice and fairness to those citizens who reside in St. Louis County and beyond and have suffered under the current system.

A major issue in St. Louis County is the plethora of municipalities. These municipalities have their own rules, fines, processes and culture. Many of these fines and processes are draconian in their impact on citizens. In addition, there is a perverse, incestuous orgy of role conflicts involving police, prosecutors and judges serving this interest.

Over the years, this circle of interest has not been conducive to the fairest outcome for community residents who are made to pay exorbitant fees in order to get free of its grasp.

As has been dutifully noted in the scathing report by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the Ferguson municipal court practices “disproportionately harms African Americans. It further stems in part from intentional discrimination in violation of the constitution.”

While the DOJ’s investigation only covered the City of Ferguson, the same case can be made of the other St. Louis County courts. For decades, an exploitative system has existed that served the interest of the municipalities. The penalties and fines were egregious and excessive, and many indigent people and their families suffered. In order to correct the historical wrongs, complete amnesty must occur for all minor outstanding infractions.

We don’t have to wait until the Supreme Court Municipal Division Work Group finishes its report, we can act now!

Municipal courts should grant amnesty to all cases involving minor offenses (including traffic stops, outstanding court warrants, manner of walking on the roadway, housing code violations, failure to appear, failure to make timely payments and license suspension) from 2012 to February 2015 and maintain a complete cessation of prosecuting the foregoing practices as a means of generating revenue.

We should cap at five percent the annual revenue that a municipality can acquire from traffic tickets, warrants, bond payments, fines and court costs. Courts should utilize community service as a legitimate option for paying fines, fees, warrants and court costs, especially for indigent populations, or where the cost will result in undue hardship on the family’s household income. Courts should reduce and cap the amount of fines and court costs that can accumulate against an individual in all municipalities to an amount that is reasonably based on the individual’s ability to pay.

Municipalities should utilize warrant recall as standard practice always available to the public.

Municipalities should immediately return all posted bonds to the person who paid for the arrested person’s release. Payment should be made immediately and in person, not mailed to an address. This is an important step in eliminating the economic exploitation of municipal residents. Monies sitting in accounts generate interest for the municipalities, and there is no legitimate reason a waiting period has to be exacted for those who may need cash the most.

For decades, municipalities have existed as self-serving financial mechanisms to extract profit from those who have the least. Observing municipal court proceedings involving indigent African Americans in St. Louis County is akin to observing a slave auction. One sees officials who are predominately white presiding over the judicial auction block, deciding the fate of a predominately black populace. One sees this population unable to pay and further penalized for being poor, black and lacking legal representation. It is unfair and unjust.