Missouri’s Gov. Jay Nixon this week signed a municipal court reform bill that serves to limit court revenue from traffic related tickets. The bill is a response to the troubles related to Ferguson where a large section of North County’s poor population were being subjected to what many have called predatory practices.
The bill goes into effect Aug. 28, but municipalities have three to six years to comply with some provisions. The bill is designed to restore trust between communities and their local governments and police agencies. Municipal courts in St. Louis County generated more than $52 million in 2014.
The legislation prohibits failure to appear charges for missing a court date, reduces certain fines, and bans jail as a sentence for most minor traffic offenses. Part of the bill limits how much of a cities’ general operating revenue can be collected from court fines and fees.
Cities will soon be required to provide financial reports annually to the state auditor. Each municipal judge then must certify that the court is complying with required procedures.
Addressing concerns on the law enforcement side of the reform, police departments must seek accreditation, along with developing written policies on use of force and pursuit of suspects. Finally, all city ordinances will have to be made available to the public. The Missouri Supreme court has been required to review and overhaul its ethical rules of conflicts of interest in the court system.
In March, a U.S. Department of Justice report criticized Ferguson police and courts, saying that they operated with the primary goal of maximizing revenue instead of meting out justice and protecting the rights of the accused.
The way the state’s court systems are designed, allows for people who can afford lawyers to get their tickets amended to minor infractions, while others in power allegedly can call in favors to get cases dismissed. Meanwhile, the poor are sometimes jailed if they miss court or can’t afford to pay.
The Ferguson Commission, created last year after Ferguson protests, sees these reforms as first steps, according to its co-chaired Rich McClure. The commission has been researching and debating plans to make other recommendations.
Some recommendations include recalling around 490,000 existing warrants that have been issued in St. Louis County for failing to appear, treating minor ordinance violations as civil violations and having the Missouri Supreme Court consolidate the area’s 81 municipal courts. These recommendations will soon be passed on with the advisory that many of them were strongly disagreed upon by members of the commission.
Nixon signed the bill at the Eastern Court of Appeals in the Old Post Office Building in St. Louis. The campaign to reform the courts gained traction after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson last August and many months of protesting throughout the St. Louis Metropolitan area.
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