- Associated Press - Friday, March 6, 2015

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said abuses detailed by a U.S. Department of Justice report on Ferguson provide stark evidence of the need for changes to the state’s municipal courts.

Nixon, who had said previously that he supports changes to municipal courts, went into further detail Friday while speaking to a gathering of the Missouri Bar Association. He said reducing the amount of money cities can get from municipal traffic fines and penalties would mark a first step, but he said changes to the way courts operate also are needed.

“If people are called to court they need to show up, but it’s a two way street and the courts have a responsibility as well - to operate fairly, transparently and ethically,” Nixon said.

The governor’s comments came two days after the Justice Department released a report on a civil rights investigation into Ferguson, the St. Louis suburb where a police officer fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed, black 18-year-old, on Aug. 9. The report condemned Ferguson’s municipal court as operating primarily as a city revenue source. It detailed instances where small infractions led to arrest warrants and large fines and penalties.

Nixon said defendants in municipal courts must receive adequate notification of charges and that penalties should be commensurate with the magnitude of the offense. He cautioned that the courts should not create modern day debtors’ prisons and that more alternatives to incarcerations and fines, such as community service, should be available.

“When municipal offenses - time after time, in certain segments of our society - are leading to, in essence, loss of financial independence, that’s a big darn deal,” Nixon said.

The Missouri Supreme Court in December modified its rules that govern municipal courts to require more leeway in paying fines for people in financial hardship. Nixon said he supported that change but more needs to be done.

He also said there should be more access to municipal courts, noting that the Ferguson judge once considered more than 2,000 cases in one session, and called for increased transparency of court procedures.

Nixon did not embrace any specific proposals beyond the measure to cap revenues from traffic tickets and fines, which has been approved in the Senate and is awaiting action in the House.

“Over the next week or so we’re going to look at trying to see if there are other concrete things that can be done, not only legislatively but also through the courts and perhaps administratively, to accelerate people’s confidence in the justice system and these municipal courts, especially in the St. Louis region,” Nixon told reporters after his speech to the lawyers’ groups.

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