Study finds users of St. Louis area municipal courts suspicious, cynical
In the past year, politicians, government officials and community advocates have been in a tug-of-war over the future of municipal court operations here.
Many say consolidation is the answer. Others worry about unintended consequences to smaller municipalities whose budgets rely heavily on revenue from court fines.
Here’s something that’s not talked about as much:
What do the people who actually get caught up in these systems think?
Researchers at Saint Louis University tried to figure that out this fall with an opinion poll.
“I haven’t seen anyone who’s necessarily happy with their experience,” said Peter Orth, a SLU grad student helping with the project.
In fact, more than two thirds of the 753 people surveyed said they don’t believe traffic stops have anything to do with public safety.
“They are very good at making their money, however that is,” said Mike Brownlee, 32, of Kirkwood, who was polled in Sunset Hills. “They say it’s to uphold the law and keep the community safe, which I’m all for that, but they do make a lot of money off people like me, on a regular basis”
Brownlee said he thinks the various municipal court systems in St. Louis County are tilted against those without a lot of money.
He said he’s racked up about $2,000 in fines in the past year.
“I couldn’t do anything about it because I was going to school, trying to get a better job so I could have money to pay for all that,” Brownlee said. “But you can’t do both at the same time.”
The SLU study focused on 13 wealthy and poor communities in St. Louis County, including affluent places like Chesterfield, Clayton and Creve Coeur, where the average household income tops $110,000 to less well-off places like Jennings, Normandy and Pagedale, where the average income is around $30,000.
Researchers hypothesized they would see stark differences between poor and affluent communities and black and white respondents.
They were right.
Jeannine Chanerl said she was racing to a friend’s aid when a Pine Lawn police officer pulled her over this fall. She ended up with a $200 speeding ticket.
Chanerl said the police officer was courteous -- but she noticed that when she went to court, nearly everyone looked like her.
Pine Lawn, which has just over 3,000 residents, took in more than $1.6 million in fines, according to the SLU researchers.
“They have to be racially profiling because why is the courtroom full of black people?” Chanerl said. “I counted the white people. It was like 6 to 75.”
The 57-year-old Bridgeton woman, who is on a fixed income, said it will take her months to pay off her ticket. She’s on a payment plan.
“Ladue, Creve Coeur, wherever. It’s always the same. Country Club Hills … whenever you go to court it’s just us. And by just us, I mean African Americans,” Chanerl said.
Sentiments like these were repeated over and over by people polled at Pine Lawn’s municipal court.
And they corroborate a larger finding in the SLU survey, which found that blacks felt more negatively about courts than whites.
Overall, 35 percent of blacks said racial profiling played a role in their traffic stop; 11.5 percent of whites felt that way.
The survey also found that people in affluent communities -- regardless of race -- had a more positive experience in court than those in poorer communities.
Elizabeth Koenig, 35, of Ballwin, had her case in Sunset Hills resolved in about 30 minutes.
“It wasn’t too bad. It was easier than I thought it was going to be,” Koenig said. “The judge was really nice, and just gave me a fine and wished me good luck.”
Veteran pollster Ken Warren is a political science professor at SLU and has conducted numerous polls over the years.
“This is very different,” Warren said. “It’s the hardest one I’ve ever done.”
People are used to being asked their political opinions, he said, but not about their experience with the court system.
He and other researchers say they hope the information is useful to policymakers intent on municipal reform.