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Despite Ferguson, Change Comes Slowly To Mo. Municipal Courts


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Six months ago tomorrow, a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., shot and killed a black 18-year-old named Michael Brown. The aftermath of that shooting exposed the region's racial tensions and sparked calls for reform of the municipal courts. Changes to those courts are now underway. But the pace of change has frustrated many. Saint Louis Public Radio's Rachel Lippmann has this update.

RACHEL LIPPMANN, BYLINE: The first Thursday of the month brings hundreds of people to this one story, red brick building in Pagedale, Mo., a town of about 3,300 people just six miles down the road from Ferguson. They're here at the municipal court to settle a wide variety of cases from traffic tickets to property damage. Vernell Boyd has been dealing with small courts like Pagedale's for a long time.

VERNELL BOYD: About 15 years ago, it was a little more strict. You know, they would be picking on any old think, you know? They'd spot you and pull you over for nothing. Now, they don't really pull you over for nothing as much.

LIPPMANN: Boyd's been arrested before for missing a couple of court dates. He says that cost him his job, which made it harder to pay the fines he owed.

BOYD: You wouldn't want to go to court 'cause you'll feel like the judge going to lock you up.

LIPPMANN: Questionable traffic tickets coupled with high fines leads many residents to fear a court appearance. Then come the arrest warrants for not showing up. That cycle is what activists want addressed. A group of volunteers calling itself the Saint Louis County Municipal Court Improvement Committee formed to take a look at changes. Boyd says he's heard rumors about their proposals.

BOYD: I heard that some of them counties were going to throw some of these little tickets out and give those people a fresh start, but...

LIPPMANN: But there's nothing of that sort happening yet.

JOHN AMMANN: I'm personally disappointed that we haven't seen more change.

LIPPMANN: That's Saint Louis University law school professor John Ammann, who along with his colleague Brendan Roediger has been pushing for municipal court reforms. They concede that the last six months have yielded some small victories, but Roediger says he hoped the court improvement committee would bring forward a plan for systemic change.

BRENDAN ROEDIGER: And instead, they're really talking about ideas. They're throwing out ideas. We're going to discuss this more. We're 40 years in of people talking about this system. I think it's time to actually change it.

LIPPMANN: The committee was mostly comprised of court personnel. Under it's proposed reforms, courts can agree to offer community service in lieu of fines or make volunteer lawyers available to give advice to defendants, but they don't have to. Roediger and other advocates wanted to eliminate municipal courts entirely. Similar plans have gotten pushed back in places like New York and Los Angeles, and it's no different in Saint Louis. City leaders don't want to lose the revenue from their courts, which can make up nearly one-third of a city's budget. And there's also resistance in the court system itself. Attorney David Naumann is a former municipal judge and a member of the Court Improvement Committee.

DAVID NAUMANN: Abolishing of municipal courts, which is never going to happen anyway, would just cause chaos. We need measured and we need reasonable change one step at a time. These municipal courts were not created in six months.

LIPPMANN: Naumann says the courts need to be left alone to make changes at their own pace. Brendan Roediger at Saint Louis University plans to get lawmakers involved to speed it up.

ROEDIGER: I don't think that we will see a complete overhaul this session. But I do think it's on everyone's mind.

LIPPMANN: And if lawmakers don't act, plan b is the court system itself. There are already several law suits pending against municipal courts, challenging everything from the fees they charge to their authority to even operate. For NPR News, I'm Rachel Lippmann in Saint Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lippmann returned to her native St. Louis after spending two years covering state government in Lansing, Michigan. She earned her undergraduate degree from Northwestern University and followed (though not directly) in Maria Altman's footsteps in Springfield, also earning her graduate degree in public affairs reporting. She's also done reporting stints in Detroit, Michigan and Austin, Texas. Rachel likes to fill her free time with good books, good friends, good food, and good baseball.