Redefining Courts’ Response to Nonviolent Offenses
The expert testimony, research, scholarship, and lived experience collected by the Commission revealed the following:
- In 2013, the municipal court in Ferguson, a city of 21,135 people, issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses, mostly driving violations (Shapiro, 2014). Similarly, Pine Lawn, another municipality in St. Louis County, has a population of only 3,275 and, in 2013, it issued 5,333 new warrants, bringing its total outstanding warrants to 23,457 (ArchCity Defenders, 2014).
- More than half the courts in St. Louis County engage in the “illegal and harmful practices” of charging high court fines and fees on nonviolent offenses like traffic violations and then arresting people when they don’t pay (Shapiro, 2014).
- From 2010 to December 2014, the offenses (besides “Failure to Appear” ordinance violations) that most often led to a municipal warrant in Ferguson were:Driving While License Is Suspended, Expired License Plates, Failure to Register a Vehicle, No Proof of Insurance, and Speed Limit violations (Department of Justice, 2015).
- Even though underlying code violations would not independently result in imprisonment, arrest and detention are not uncommon once a warrant enters on a case (Department of Justice, 2015). The Department of Justice’s investigation of the Ferguson Police Department found overwhelming evidence of minor municipal code violations resulting in multiple arrests, jail time, and fines and fees that exceeded the cost of the original ticket several times over. As the report documents, one woman received two parking tickets for a single violation in 2007 that then totaled $151 plus fees. Over seven years later, she still owed Ferguson $541—after already paying $550 in fines and fees, having multiple arrest warrants issued against her, and being arrested and jailed on several occasions (Department of Justice, 2015).
- The ArchCity Defenders’ 2014 municipal courts white paper observed that the fining practices of certain courts often led to repeated incarceration, psychological harm, and potential loss of housing and employment (ArchCity Defenders, 2014). The Commission and Working Group heard numerous examples of people who were unable to pay their fines for a minor ordinance violation, missed their court dates because they did not have the money, had warrants issued against them, and/or ended up in jail for failure to appear.
- Outstanding warrants for minor traffic offenses have kept people from retaining employment. Malik Ahmed, founder and CEO of Better Family Life, discovered that many of the participants in his job training program could not retain employment for fearing of being arrested in route to their jobs, which were often five to ten miles away, because of outstanding traffic warrants (Shapiro, 2014). To counter that obstacle, Better Family Life partnered with local police departments to create an annual amnesty plan in which individuals would be able to exchange their arrest warrants for payments plans for their fines and fees (Shapiro, 2014).
- Currently in the United States, regressive municipal fines disproportionately harm defendants with low incomes. A wealthy individual is likely to view a $200-$300 fine as a minor inconvenience, while the same fine might have devastating consequences for a poor individual who already struggles to pay the rent and put food on the table.
These findings prompted the Commission to draft several calls to action, in part to further the reforms already underway. Among other provisions, Senate Bill 5, recently signed by Governor Nixon, caps fines at $300 (Mo. Ann. Stat. § 479.353 (1)); requires municipal courts to establish “procedures to allow indigent defendants to present evidence of their financial condition.” (Mo. Ann. Stat. § 479.360 (1)(4)); and eliminates additional charges for the failure to appear for minor traffic violations. (Mo. Ann. Stat. § 479.360 (1)(6)) (Mo. Rev. Stat. 479). The calls to action outlined here, however, would strengthen the existing law by specifying when the court must inquire into a defendant’s ability to pay, clarifying that courts must consider payment plans and fine revocation in certain circumstances, and paving the way for the cancellation of outstanding arrest warrants for defendants where their inability to pay may have been a significant issue.
To that end, the Commission issues the calls to action below.
An open letter to Mayor Lyda Krewson from Rebeccah Bennett and Zachary Boyers, Co-chairs of Forward Through Ferguson, on the public safety opportunity in front of our region. Click here to download a pdf of the open letter. Mayor Krewson, The retirement of Police Chief Sam Dotson represents a new day for public safety in St. Louis….
Suggested Reading List
ArchCity Defenders. (2014). Municipal courts white paper. Retrieved from http://03a5010.netsolhost.com/WordPress/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/ArchCity-Defenders-Municipal-Courts-Whitepaper.pdf
Department of Justice (DOJ). (2015). Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department. Retrieved fromhttp://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/ferguson_police_department_report.pdf
- Ahmed, Z. (2005). Poverty, Family Stress, and Parenting. Retrieved fromhttp://www.humiliationstudies.org/documents/AhmedPovertyFamilyStressParenting.pdf
- ArchCity Defenders. (2014). Municipal Courts White Paper. Retrieved from http://03a5010.netsolhost.com/WordPress/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/ArchCity-Defenders-Municipal-Courts-Whitepaper.pdf
- Blake, C. (2014). No place to call home:The rise in youth and family homelessness. Citizen-Times. Retrieved from http://www.citizen-times.com/longform/local/2014/06/21/homeless-students- education/11209293/
- Department of Justice. (2015). Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department. Retrieved:http://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/ferguson_police_department_report.pdf
- Drash, W. (2012). The ‘silent victims’ of incarceration:coping with parents in prison. CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2012/11/26/world/cnnheroes-prison-children/
- Freivogel, W. (2014). Two visions of municipal court reform. STL Public Radio. Retrieved from http://news.stlpublicradio.org/post/two-visions-municipal-court-reform
- Lippmann, R. (2015). Despite Ferguson, Change comes slowly to MO. Municipal Courts. NPR. Retrieved fromhttp://www.npr.org/2015/02/08/384695759/change-comes-slowly-to-missouri-municipal-courts
- Shapiro, J. (2014). In Ferguson, Court fines and fees fuel anger. NRP. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2014/08/25/343143937/in-ferguson-court-fines-and-fees-fuel-anger
- Toch, H. (1975). Men in crisis:Human breakdowns in prison. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=-mtDIA_WwfkC&printsec=frontcover&dq=HANS+TOCH,+MEN+IN+CRISIS:+HUM
- University of York. (2013). The effects of harassment. Retrieved from http://www.york.ac.uk/admin/eo/Harassment/HarassmentEffects.htm
- Daley, S. (2015). Speeding in Finland can cost a fortune, if you already have one. The New York Times. Retrieved fromhttp://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/26/world/europe/speeding-in-finland-can-cost-a-fortune-if-you-already-have-one.html?_r=0
- Kohler, J., Mann, J., & Deere, S. (2015). Municipal courts are a well-oiled money machine. St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Retrieved fromhttp://www.stltoday.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/municipal-courts-are-well-oiled-money-machine/article_2f45bafb-6e0d-5e9e-8fe1-0ab9a794fcdc.html
- Karen L. Tokarz, Sam Stragand, Jacob Blanton & Jenny Terrell, Moving Beyond Ferguson:The Growing Imperative to Revamp Our Nation’s Municipal Courts and Develop Community Justice Centers to Rebuild Public Trust, Repair Seriously Fractured Community Relations, and Advance Restorative Justice, 48 Wash. U. J. L. & Pol’y ___ (forthcoming2015).
- Mo. Rev. Stat. 479. Retrieved from:http://www.senate.mo.gov/15info/pdf-bill/tat/SB5.pdf