U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, has asked the Justice Department to investigate municipal courts in St. Louis and St. Louis County.
In his letter to Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, Clay wrote that “the court system operates mostly as a revenue source for the state and county, with little oversight.”
“Many jurisdictions often function as little more than municipal ATM machines, and they repeatedly victimize local residents who happen to be African-American,” Clay said in an interview on Tuesday.
Clay cited what he called “disturbing findings” in a recent report from the nonprofit Better Together.
That report found that municipal courts in St. Louis County collected 46 percent of fines and fees statewide, while the jurisdictions they represented accounted for just 22 percent of Missouri's population.
The report also found these municipalities bring in one-third of their general operating revenue from fees and fines, and on average are more than 60 percent black and more than 20 percent below the poverty line. The report said St. Louis County is 24 percent black, with 11 percent of residents below the poverty line.
Clay said the report shows the most vulnerable population are being targeted by local courts, sending them into a “vicious cycle of economic despair and injustice.”
"It works just fine for them to have an unequal system of justice that is onerous, and to me, these municipalities cannot continue to financially survive largely and disproportionately on the backs of African-American community,” he said.
Clay said it will take a “higher authority” like the Justice Department to change the system, saying he doesn't have faith that local officials will make changes.
"I haven't seen much movement from state or county government, I don't see anyone proposing any laws in the state legislature to stop this, I don't see these municipalities voluntarily revamping these systems,” he said. “It's going to take a concerted effort to actually get this practice stopped."
Clay said the Justice Department can make recommendations for changes in the municipal court system. He suggested the department expand an existing investigation into the St. Louis County Family Court on “whether it provides the constitutionally required due process to all children appearing in the court, regardless of race.”
“That would go a long way in helping to address racial inequalities in the St. Louis region,” Clay said.
The Justice Department is already conducting civil rights investigations into the Ferguson and St. Louis County Police Departments, as well as into the police shooting of Michael Brown.
In an email, a spokesperson said the Justice Department will review Clay's letter when it is received.