Improving Efficiency and Effectiveness Through Consolidation of Municipal Courts
The expert testimony, research, scholarship, and lived experience collected by the Commission revealed the following:
- The presiding judge of the 21st Circuit (which includes St. Louis County) is charged with oversight of 81 municipal courts – almost ten times the average number of municipal courts in other judicial circuits (Better Together, 2014).
- Jim Buford, former CEO and President of Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis and a current member of the board of Better Together, stated “Fragmentation serves as a structural impediment to community reinvestment […] neither our infrastructure nor our collective conscience can afford this current level of fragmentation” (Buford, 2014).
- Research by Better Together “revealed that fines-and-fees revenue increased at a time when property-tax revenue declined. Desperate to maintain their income stream in the face of dwindling property values, many municipalities turned to the municipal courts for revenue. Financially, this strategy yielded the results needed for the municipal governments to survive. 2013 data shows that of the 81 municipal courts in St. Louis County, 73 brought in more revenue than they require to operate. In fact, on average, a municipal court in St. Louis County costs $223,149 to operate yet brings in an average of $711,506 in revenue from fines and fees each year, for an average net revenue of $488,357” (Better Together, 2014).
- It costs an estimated $15.8 million a year to operate St. Louis County’s 81 municipal courts (ArchCity Defenders, 2015). In contrast, one study suggests if the 81 municipal courts were consolidated into four full-time courts, the estimated costs would be cut to between $6 million and $8 million a year (ArchCity Defenders, 2015). Another study suggests that economic growth in a region can be stymied when there are high levels of “metropolitan political fragmentation, higher levels of racial segregation, and most significantly (both for theory and in terms of statistical significance) higher level of income inequality” (Benner & Pastor, 2013).
- ArchCity Defenders, SLU Law Legal Clinics, Better Together, Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, and the Organization for Black Struggle all recommend consolidating St. Louis County’s 81 municipal courts (ArchCity Defenders, 2015). These organizations identify the following as likely benefits of consolidation (ArchCity Defenders, 2015):
- “lessen the incentive to use racially discriminatory fines and fees as a revenue stream”
- “make it easier for poor and Black people to navigate the legal system in St. Louis County”
- “make it easier for organizers and legal watchdogs to monitor compliance”
- “save millions of dollars in court operation costs”
- Between 1979 and 2001, 16 Missouri counties have consolidated trial courts and 8 counties have combined a portion of their operations into a centralized court. In a study conducted by the National Center for State Courts, a vast majority of court clerks reported improvements in (Moyer, 2001):
- Efficiency within the court:increased flexibility, communication, and coordination between staff, and faster case processing;
- Greater public access to court facilities:87% say public trust and confidence in court system improved;
- Cost effectiveness:cost savings from shared supplies and equipment, and greater interest income;
- 86 percent said, if given the choice, they would not go back to the prior court structure.
These findings prompted the Commission to draft a call to action for the consolidation of municipal courts.
To that end, the Commission issues the calls to action below.
Suggested Reading List
Capps, K. (2014). For anything to change, Missouri should consolidate St. Louis. CityLab. Retrieved from https://www.citylab.com/crime/2014/08/why-missouri-should-consolidate-st-louis/378728
Smith, J. (2014). In Ferguson, black town, white power. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/18/opinion/in-ferguson-black-town-white-power.html
- ArchCity Defenders. (2015). It’s not just Ferguson:Missouri Supreme Court should consolidate the municipal court system. Retrieved fromhttps://www.archcitydefenders.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Its-Not-Just-Ferguson-Consolidate-the-Municipal-Courts.pdf
- Barrett, K. & Greene, R. (2011). Is government consolidation always good? Governing. Retrieved from https://www.governing.com/columns/smart-mgmt/col-government-consolidation-always-good.html
- Benner, C., & Pastor, M. (2013). Buddy, can you spare some time? Social inclusion and sustained prosperity in America’s metropolitan regions. MacArthur Foundation Network on Building Resilient Regions. Retrieved from https://brr.berkeley.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Benner-Pastor-Buddy-Spare-Some-Time.pdf
- Better Together. (2014). Public safety – Municipal courts. Better Together. Retrieved from https://www.bettertogetherstl.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/BT-Municipal-Courts-Report-Full-Report1.pdf
- Buford, J. (2014). Remarks from Better Together board member Jim Buford at the SLU Law School Symposium. Retrieved fromhttps://www.bettertogetherstl.com/remarks-from-better-together-board-member-jim-buford-at-the-slu-law-school-symposium#
- Deere, S. (2015). North County municipalities talking about merger of courts before reforms are forced on them. St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Retrieved from https://www.stltoday.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/north-county-municipalities-talking-about-merger-of-courts-before-reforms/article_c0ba92ab-3d39-5cb0-a8a3-d55eda0269e2.html
- Moyer, J. (2001). Court consolidation in Missouri:Where are we after 20 years? Institute Of Court Management, Court Executive Development Program. Retrieved from https://www.ncsc.org/~/media/Files/PDF/Education%20and%20Careers/CEDP%20Papers/2001/Court_Consolidation_MO.ashx
- Renn, A. (2015). The myths of municipal mergers. Governing. Retrieved from https://www.governing.com/columns/eco-engines/gov-ferguson-and-splintered-governance.html
- Tokarz, K., Stragand, S. Blanton, J., & Terrell, J. Forthcoming 2015. 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. Washington University Journal of Law & Policy.