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New standards now in effect for Missouri's municipal courts

Mike Brownlee, 32, of Kirkwood, (right) fills out a survey about the municipal court system outside Sunset Hills City Hall. Researchers from Saint Louis University are studying courts in St. Louis County in hopes of addressing inequalities.
File photo | Kameel Stanley | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
As of Saturday, all of Missouri's municipal courts, including the one in Sunset Hills, have had to meet new minimum standards.

As of Saturday, municipal courts across Missouri have had to meet some new operating standards.

The state Supreme Court set the minimum requirements for the court in 2016. Courts must now have a judge available at all times, and cannot charge illegal fines or fees, among other things. The rules were the Supreme Court's response to findings by the U.S. Department of Justice and legal advocacy groups that the municipal courts operated in large part to fund city operations.

The municipal courts have to give a progress report every six months to the presiding judge in the circuit where they operate. Judge Douglas Beach, the presiding judge in the 21st Circuit, said the 77 courts he oversees in St. Louis County are working hard to comply with the new standards.

"We do go out and randomly check, and when we've seen problems, I call them up and we talk about it," Beach said. "I haven't had anyone push back and say, 'No, we're not going to do it.'"

Thomas Harvey, the executive director of the legal advocacy group ArchCity Defenders, gave Beach high marks for the way he's supervising the municipal courts. But, Harvey said, those courts are still making it a crime to be poor.

"We’re not at a point where we’re treating people in a humane fashion and where we’re actually privileging public safety over revenue," Harvey said. 

The new standards have led to consolidation among some North County courts. The community development organization Beyond Housing worked with 11 municipalities to consolidate their courts into two locations.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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