- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 17, 2014

ST. LOUIS (AP) - A newly formed group of municipal judges, lawyers and court administrators is pushing for reforms in St. Louis County’s 81 local courts in an effort to lower the financial burden of fines and court fees on residents and reduce the county’s reliance on those revenues.

Many of the reforms already have been proposed in Ferguson, where sometimes-violent protests over the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer put increased pressure on local officials to make such changes, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (https://bit.ly/1wDd4gC ) reported. Critics say reliance on court revenue and traffic fines to fund city services more heavily penalizes low-income defendants who can’t afford private attorneys and who are often jailed for not promptly paying those fines.

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley announced this week he would ask the County Municipal Court to do away with a $25 fee levied for ordinance violations that brings in about $1 million a year to the county’s general fund. The County Municipal Court’s three branches handle matters that occur in unincorporated areas.

The new St. Louis County Municipal Court Improvement Committee is looking into ways to substitute community service work for fines and to increase amnesty programs that cancel old warrants for people struggling financially.

Members also are reaching out to lawmakers and support a Supreme Court rule change that would allow municipal judges to structure fines based on a person’s ability to pay.

“We’re trying to clean up our own act,” said Frank Vatterott, a private attorney and municipal judge of 35 years who suggested the review. “We should have been doing this before.”

The Ferguson City Council last week responded to the protests over Brown’s shooting with an array of proposals that include capping income at 15 percent of the city’s total revenue. They also would eliminate “failure to appear” offenses, which critics say often mean additional fines and jail time for those who don’t show up to court because they can’t pay.

In a letter to County Council members about his proposal to do away with the $25 court fee, Dooley said the move would “demonstrate St. Louis County’s recognition of such hardships and to prevent the undue drain on resources that such fines and costs can engender.”

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Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, https://www.stltoday.com

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