Changing a process that was blamed for fueling anger and frustration with the legal system in Ferguson, Mo., 80 municipal courts in St. Louis County have agreed to set uniform fees and fines to be more fair to people charged with offenses such as speeding.
Critics call the move one step on what they see as a long path of reform. They note that the agreement is voluntary and lacks a formal system of tracking or enforcement.
The changes, which replace a system of fees and fines that varied wildly between jurisdictions, are similar to ones ordered weeks ago by a judge in Ferguson. The push for reform has fed off protests and scrutiny that followed the police killing of Michael Brown last August.
Last month, a federal inquiry faulted Ferguson for creating a system that's "shaped by the City's focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs." As NPR has reported, "In 2013, the municipal court in Ferguson — a city of 21,135 people — issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses, mostly driving violations."
From St. Louis Public Radio, Rachel Lippmann reports:
"The March report from the Department of Justice on Brown's death called the court in Ferguson nothing more than a revenue generator for the city. It's not a complaint that's unique to Ferguson.
"The new fines and fees are an effort to bring that under control. Attorney Frank Vatterott, the municipal judge in the city of Overland, was an architect of the plan. He says, 'The hope is that we can show the empathy that we haven't shown, and that people will recognize that courts are valuable.'
"But activist groups say a one-size-fits-all approach to fines doesn't help people who have no money. They would rather see fines based on the ability of a person to pay."
As NPR's Joseph Shapiro reported last September, Ferguson's fee system forced people to pay separate fees for making a court appearance; pleading guilty; and having an arrest warrant put out against them. They also paid for the mileage police had to drive to serve the warrant.
A new report says the problems extend far beyond the St. Louis area. As Sam reported yesterday for the Two-Way, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area says that in California, spikes in fines and fees have come along with reduced access to courts, contributing to more than 4 million people facing driver's license suspensions that "make it harder for people to get and keep jobs, harm credit ratings and raise public safety concerns."
The study found that California has more than $10 billion in uncollected court-ordered debt, and that the state relies on heavy fines as a revenue source.