- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Thousands of open arrest warrants for municipal violations are being withdrawn and requirements for bond loosened in Ferguson, Missouri — a move heralded by local officials as an effort to overhaul the city’s court system and a way to afford residents a clean slate.

But lawyers who represent clients within the municipal court system say the warrant recall will provide more of a fresh start for the courts, which on Friday will be subject to new reporting requirements, rather than defendants.

While there is praise for the reforms, the lawyers question whether they are enough for the local judicial system to upright itself and regain the community’s trust.

The practices of municipal courts in the St. Louis region came under intense scrutiny following last year’s fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer, with a Justice Department report later finding that both police and the city’s municipal court engaged in a “pattern and practice” of discrimination against blacks.

Ferguson Municipal Court Judge Donald McCullin this week withdrew municipal arrest warrants issued before Dec. 31, 2014 — approximately 10,000 warrants, according to city estimates. The order does not apply to warrants for more serious criminal charges issued by the state.

The subjects of the withdrawn arrest warrants will be given new court dates and could receive payment plans to pay down fines or be ordered to complete community service instead. In some cases involving indigent defendants, fines could be commuted, according to the order.

“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,” Judge McCullin said.

The judge also issued a separate order that allows people arrested on minor traffic violations to be released on their own recognizance rather than by paying a cash bond. Arrestees facing nontraffic violations, such as trespassing, will be able to be released on unsecured bonds — which are essentially promises to pay the bond back at a later time.

The move comes days before a state law takes effect that will implement several judicial system overhauls, including new reporting requirements that will detail to the Missouri state auditor all revenues that cities collect through traffic tickets. The law will also put limits on punishment handed down for moving violations, capping tickets for minor violations at $300 and barring courts from issuing an additional “failure to appear” charge when a defendant does not come to court for a minor traffic violation.

The decision by Ferguson to recall warrants follows moves by several other surrounding jurisdictions to do so.

Thomas Harvey, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, said he suspects the real motivation behind the warrant recalls is to make it easier for municipalities to comply with the new reporting requirements as they will no longer have a backlog of open warrants to sort through for the required statistics.

“If you wanted to make a fresh start, you wouldn’t just recall the warrants, you would dump the case,” said Mr. Harvey, whose organization is composed of lawyers who offer legal services to the poor. “This won’t reach the people who would most benefit [from] the warrant recall. For the folks who are homeless or moving place to place, they are not even going to know this happened. They will get another court date and not know about it.”

While Ferguson and other small towns may be implementing these changes, Mr. Harvey points out the fact there are 81 municipal court systems in St. Louis County.

In an environment where many residents remain deeply skeptical of the fairness of the court systems, some have advocated that the piecemeal reforms are not enough.

“Until we have full-time professional courts that don’t have conflicts of interest and can be meaningfully monitored, all of these municipalities are going to undo progress whenever they need the money,” Brendan Roediger, a professor of law at St. Louis University School of Law, told The New York Times.

Mr. Harvey said he’s torn by the announcement of the reforms announced Monday. He doesn’t want to undermine them, but said they still aren’t enough to incite real change in the local criminal justice system.

“You’re still back to the problem of why was the person arrested and charged in the first place. Many of my clients believe that is because they were being racially profiled,” he said. “My clients don’t trust those courts.”

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