This has been a year of change for the municipal court system in St. Louis County and the rest of the state of Missouri: Prompted by the work of activists in the wake of Michael Brown’s death, the U.S Justice Department issued a report that found that rather than seeking actual justice, Ferguson’s “constitutionally deficient” courts operate with a goal of maximizing revenue from residents of color. The city’s sitting municipal judge Ronald Brockmeyer resigned after being explicitly named as part of the problem. Audits were ordered for courts around the state. Lawsuits were brought against municipalities that were pocketing an inordinate amount of money collected for traffic violations. And the governor signed a bill that capped fines and court costs for minor offenses and abolished de facto debtor’s prisons, which will go into effect this Friday.
On August 24, 2015, Ferguson’s newly appointed municipal judge, Donald McCullin, took another major step: He ordered the withdrawal of all arrest warrants issued in the city before December 31, 2014. The defendants will be issued new court dates, with payment plans and community service as options for paying fines. Moving forward, residents will no longer face jail time for minor offenses like traffic violations. Those who are arrested for subsequent warrants or more involved offenses will be able to pay unsecured bonds of $200 to $300. Also, people whose licenses were previously suspended by the court for failure to appear in court or pay fines will have their driving privileges reinstated.
In a statement, McCullin, who is black, said, “These changes should continue the process of restoring confidence in the court, alleviating fears of the consequences of appearing in court, and giving many residents a fresh start.” According to the city’s municipal prosecutor, Stephanie Karr, the ruling voids nearly 10,000 warrants.
In an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Thomas Harvey of nonprofit ArchCity Defenders said that the unsecured bonds is an important step, but he has little confidence that reform will be impactful. “The fundamental question is why does anyone trust this court to change? It stands to reason that we ought to be skeptical about a town that has had a court like this for so long.”