The Kansas City Star, July 8
‘There’s no punishment for not showing up to court’: How Missouri defendants get off easy
A recent Friday morning in the courtroom of presiding Independence Municipal Judge Garry Helm demonstrates as conclusively as anything why Missouri’s sweeping 2015 judicial reforms went too far.
On the 10 a.m. docket that day were 368 cases. In the audience were - count ‘em - seven defendants.
Helm had predicted the paltry turnout even before he walked into court that morning. No-shows dominate life in municipal courts these days. New state laws, enacted as a result of the Ferguson uprising, stipulate that Helm can’t fine a defendant for missing court for minor traffic violations such as driving without a license. He can’t get them tossed in jail. And he can’t suspend their licenses.
So the word is out: There’s no reason to show up for court. And drivers who lack licenses or insurance continue to roam the streets.
“It’s just really sad,” Helm said. “They’ve taken the teeth out of municipal courts.”
“They” is the Missouri General Assembly, which meant well when it passed a series of laws that then-Gov. Jay Nixon called the most comprehensive municipal court reform bill in state history. They acted after a Justice Department investigation documented enormous problems in east Missouri towns like Ferguson, which essentially ticketed African Americans as a way to to generate enough revenue to operate their cities.
The report concluded that officials in those municipalities viewed African Americans “less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.” The oppressive brand of law enforcement in those towns amounted to an ongoing abuse of power.
Then-state Sen. Eric Schmitt, who’s now the state treasurer and was the bill’s primary sponsor, said at the time the legislation was intended to address a “breakdown of trust” between people, the government and the court system. The old laws had treated citizens like ATMs. “Healing that,” he said, “is something worth fighting for.”
He was right. That those issues needed to be addressed was obvious. The problem? Lawmakers lumped every city in the state in with the bad actors in the St. Louis suburbs. The result was a vast overreach that created problems where none had existed before, which is exactly what Kansas City Mayor Sly James predicted before Nixon signed one of the bills.
Said state Rep. DaRon McGee, a Kansas City Democrat, “We’re making Ferguson’s problems Kansas City’s problems.”
Among the changes was a lowering of maximum fines to $225 from what used to be $500. The result? Combined with a ban on late fees and warrant fees, revenue flowing into city coffers has dropped dramatically. Add to that some other expenses associated with the news laws, which included software and personnel requirements, and the result has been the shuttering of small municipal courts and police departments all over western Missouri.
They simply couldn’t afford to remain open.
Among the affected towns are Holt, Platte City, Mosby, Lake Tapawingo, Randolph, Lake Lafayette, Avondale and Napoleon. Cases that would have been handled in those courtrooms are now winding up in associate circuit courts crowding those dockets to overflowing.
The change has undermined enforcement in another key area, too: neighborhood nuisances often involving abandoned homes. The Kansas City housing judge now says he no longer has the tools to stop offenders.
The state Senate considered but did not pass a bill this year aimed at undoing some of the reforms. Sen. Bob Dixon, a Springfield Republican, said his aim was to start a conversation about solutions. One of Dixon’s ideas: If a citizen fails to show up for a court date, a judge could order community service, issue a civil fine or put a hold on a driver’s license.
He told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he’d heard from mayors across the state that the 2015 law had hurt their cities.
“It has removed the ability for municipalities to enforce their ordinances,” he said. “We need a different solution.”
But Schmitt stands by the reforms as the best way to stop cities from abusing citizens via multiple tickets. The message to cities, he said, is: “You need to find another way to generate revenue.”
Complaints about the new rules amount to sour grapes “from cities who don’t like the loss of revenue.”
Judge Helm likes the idea of imposing penalties for missing court. Too many defendants “just blow us off,” he said. “There’s no punishment for not showing up to court.”
To him, public safety is being eroded. “My motto is if you don’t want to pay the fine, don’t do the crime.”
In court that Friday morning, Helm gave one man until November to finish paying a fine that was already two years past due. “I can pay it in a week,” the man told Helm.
The judge thumbed through case envelopes that document defendant after defendant with outstanding fines. One example: Larry Bradley of Independence has been arrested six times for failing to pay a years-old fine for driving with no insurance. He was never put in jail and once wrote a bad check to pay his $187 fine.
“We lost money on that deal,” Helm said.
Another defendant who didn’t show that Friday was Shawanda Brown, who has been arrested four times for a $450 ticket from 2015 for driving with no insurance and driving with a suspended license. She still hasn’t paid.
“These people just continue to drive,” Helm said, “except they don’t drive to court.”
Missouri needs to revisit its 2015 reforms with the goal of restoring some authority to its municipal courts. As of now, they’ve been effectively defanged.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 7
To serve with honor, and to be dishonorably thrown to the dogs
President Donald Trump and his supporters might feel righteously indignant about illegal border crossers, but the administration’s backlash against others who are trying to immigrate the right way is charting a perilous new course in unfairness and cruelty. The Pentagon is dismissing noncitizen service members who joined to demonstrate patriotism and a willingness to sacrifice for the good of their adopted country.
The Associated Press has been able to document the abrupt discharge of more than 40 immigrant Army reservists and recruits. The actual number is believed to be much higher. These discharges come amid increasingly harsh anti-immigrant measures by the Trump administration, bolstered by the president’s unrelenting attacks on those who crossed the border illegally.
But the people who volunteered for military service fit into an entirely different category. They are noncitizens who openly acknowledge their status as visitors but who hope to gain a pathway to citizenship. The federal government has long offered special incentives to lawful immigrants: In exchange for serving, they had been promised a faster track to bypass the long and arduous naturalization process that others must endure.
The benefits for the country are enormous. The military has found a new way to boost recruitment, especially in times when regular citizens are reluctant to join. Noncitizen recruits offer valuable talents that the military often has difficulty finding, such as fluency in difficult languages like Mandarin, Farsi and Arabic.
But last October, less than a year after Trump took office, the Pentagon announced it was tightening its vetting and certification procedures in ways that meant some who had already served honorably still might not get what the military promised. Without Pentagon protection, they must go home when their visas expire.
An Iranian citizen who had gone through the program, called Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, expressed pride at “pursuing everything legally and living an honorable life.” But he told The Associated Press: “It’s terrible because I put my life in the line for this country, but I feel like I’m being treated like trash. If I am not eligible to become a U.S. citizen, I am really scared to return to my country.”
Fears are high for lots of recruits, who face accusations of treason at home for having served the military interests of the United States. One such Army recruit was Shu Luo, a highly educated Chinese citizen who had enlisted to serve the United States. Deportation could mean death back home, he told National Public Radio.
Is this really how America wants to show gratitude to those who served honorably? The repercussions could be severe in the future, should the United States find itself at war with one of those countries and badly need those recruits’ language skills. Who would want to serve a country that so willingly throws its loyal servants to the dogs?
The Joplin Globe, July 8
Next EPA head should protect human health, environment
Swampiest swamp creature Scott Pruitt has resigned as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Now that the weight of 13 investigations into Pruitt’s ethical breaches have brought his tenure to an end, a new issue looms. Who should President Donald Trump appoint as the next administrator of the EPA? What qualities should senators look for when Trump asks them to advise and consent to his next pick to head the agency?
Pruitt leaves behind more than a history of grift and the costly “cone of silence” installed in his office. He failed to serve the public interest in protecting the environment. Pruitt flatly offered up the agency to the industries it is intended to monitor and regulate. He turned the agency into a booster for energy industries in which he was entangled. For example, Pruitt spent $40,000 on a trip to Morocco to actively promote natural gas exports, taking on a role in which the regulatory agency has no legitimate concern.
“The mission of EPA is to protect human health and the environment,” according to the agency’s website. The next EPA boss should be dedicated to that mission. Despite the Trump administration’s focus on deregulation, the nominee should be determined to ensure Americans have clean air, land and water. The nominee should put the public interest above that of industries and corporations.
The next administrator must respect science. The agency is actually required to ensure efforts to reduce environmental risks are based on the best available scientific information. Sound policy decisions must be based on the best analysis of data gathered - not on a predetermined political position. Pruitt not only rolled back regulations and purged references to climate change, he also reduced information gathering, including a decision that stopped the collection of methane emissions data from around 15,000 oil and gas operations.
The new acting head of the agency, Andrew Wheeler, former EPA deputy administrator, has been touted as a likely successor to Pruitt. He is not the man for the job. Wheeler spent years lobbying for companies that are regulated by the agency. His work for the regulated industries and his time working for anti-environmentalist Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., indicate that he will continue selling our future to polluting industries. If Wheeler is the nominee, the Senate should reject him.
Pruitt was an antagonist of the EPA who attempted to gut its protections while wallowing in the worst of Washington’s swampiness. Our nation, our president and our Senate must insist the EPA leader be someone who is both ethical and dedicated to protecting America’s future.
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