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Forget court not: New St. Louis County website aims to cut down on arrests for missing hearings

A screenshot of the newly released Your STL Courts website May 2017
Screenshot | yourstlcourts.com
A screenshot of the newly released Your STL Courts website

The St. Louis County municipal court system has a new website that developers believe will help reduce arrests of people who don’t show up to court, but detractors say more access to that kind of information doesn’t necessarily make officers’ ticketing proclivities more fair.

YourSTLCourts.com launched Monday, providing a single location for people who face low-level charges — such as expired license plates or running a stop sign — in unincorporated parts of St. Louis County to look up information about cases and sign up for text alerts of upcoming court dates. The website also provides basic legal advice, court rules and locations.

The developers of the website hope to make information from individual cities in the  available soon. The municipal court in the city of St. Louis also is developing an app.

The county’s website grew out of a 2015 programing competition that focused on using technology to solve problems with local courts, said John Cruz, who helped lead the team that built the website.

He said a survey showed that people wanted more information about their cases.

“People by and large are scared, they’re not sure what the best approach is. They’re avoiding court dates because they’re afraid they’re going to need to pay the fines immediately, and there’s just a lot of misinformation going around,” Cruz said.

Those critical of the municipal court system argue, however, that the website is just another way to prop up a system that’s fundamentally unfair to low-income and minority residents.

Arch City Defenders executive director Thomas Harvey speaking during a 2014 meeting of the Ferguson Commission.
Credit File photo | Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
ArchCity Defenders executive director Thomas Harvey, shown here in a 2014 file photo, said the new website does nothing to help defendants who are charged fines and fees they cannot afford.

"At the end of virtually every case in municipal court, the court assesses a fine for people who are too poor to pay it. No amount of technology will change that,” according to Thomas Harvey, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, a legal advocacy group that has filed civil rights lawsuits against a number of local municipal courts.

“Adding an app on top of this fundamental flaw will change nothing about the municipal courts."  

Cruz noted that the developers don’t have the ability to address the underlying system.

“At the end of the day, we’re trying to make sure that people are doing the best that they can in order to go to court, get their tickets resolved, and work out information so that if there’s something that could be more fair, in terms of a payment plan or potentially community service, they know that those options are available,” he said.

Plus, judges and prosecutors can’t do anything to help someone if they don’t show up to court, municipal Judge Kevin Kelly said.

“Even if they are innocent, they still need to come to court at some point if they want to challenge the underlying offense,” he said.

Cruz said developers hope to have information available on the website for individual cities soon, but he did not have an exact date. Kelly, who’s the judge in Hazelwood, Cool Valley and Maryland Heights, said more than half of his colleagues have agreed to let the website access their court information.

St. Louis’ municipal court is working with PayIt, a national company, to develop an app that would give people the ability to pay fines and fees by cell phone, as well as receive reminders of court dates and payment due dates.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

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