Eighty municipal courts in St. Louis County have agreed to levy identical fines and court fees for charges like speeding or driving without insurance.
The announcement Thursday by Overland municipal judge Frank Vatterott is the latest step by the St. Louis County Municipal Court Improvement Committee to make changes to the courts internally. A uniform fine schedule was already in place in Ferguson, by an order from Judge Roy Richter.
"The point of it is to be fair," Vatterott said. "If you get a ticket in Bellefontaine Neighbors, at the north end of the county, you shouldn't have to pay double for what you would have to pay for the same violation in Bella Villa, which is at the bottom of our county."
Here is an example of how disparate fines have been up to now. In 2014, a motorist pulled over for driving without insurance in Brentwood would face a $99 ticket. A driver pulled over for the same offense in Ferguson faced a $377 ticket. Going 10 miles over the speed limit in Breckenridge Hills would set a driver back $150, while someone who got the same ticket in Calverton Park would pay only $50, plus court costs.
Under the uniform fee schedule, motorists will generally be charged about $70 for a moving violation, and about $50 for a non-moving violations. The agreement is non-binding, however, so individual cities are free to set fines higher or lower depending on the needs. Court costs are now set at $24.50.
"The hope is that we can show the empathy we haven't shown, and that people will recognize that courts are valuable," Vatterott said. "The kind of cases that we handle are the ones that happen to people in neighborhoods. If you file that kind of case in Clayton, at the county courthouse, it'll get lost in the weeds."
Even though the uniform fee schedule is considered a good start, Vatterott acknowledged it still has significant shortcomings. Because municipal judges sign the order voluntarily, there is no way to make sure they charge the amount promised except if residents come forward, he said. The schedule also does nothing to change the behavior of police departments, who write the tickets that force motorists to appear in front of judges.
"It doesn’t help anything else," he said. "It doesn’t help people that allege they were stopped because of their color or other things that we can’t do anything about as judges. We just call the balls and strikes."
People pushing for even more systemic changes, or the elimination of the municipal court system entirely, were underwhelmed by the announcement.
"Does it eliminate one piece of the capriciousness of the system? Yes," said Jeff Ordower, the executive director of Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, which is pushing its own reform plan. "But it's a tiny piece, and it's like saying the Hubble telescope is good because we're closer to the stars when it's in orbit."
The one-size-fits-all mentality is the wrong approach, even if the fines are lower, Ordower said. Municipal courts should base the punishment on the ability of an individual to pay, as is done in the city of St. Louis.
Former state senator Jeff Smith posed this question on Twitter:
— Jeff Smith (@JeffSmithMO) April 9, 2015
And the Arch City Defenders, a non-profit legal agency that has several lawsuits pending over municipal court practices, said its clients had no reason to believe the reforms would change anything.
@rlippmann why would the impacted community trust "reforms" coming from the same people who have jailed them for their poverty for decades?
— ArchCityDefenders (@ArchCityDefense) April 9, 2015
Ordower, with Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, said he was most intrigued by the court improvement committee's plan to address arrest warrants and bonds. Judge Frank Vatterott said his group hopes to convince the courts to set a uniform bond schedule. He also wants to establish a compact that would allow a person arrested in one city on a warrant from another city to pay the bonds and get new court dates on any warrants they have at that first city.
"That would dramatically decrease the number of people incarcerated for these very small ordinance violations," Vatterott said. "People are languishing in these municipal courts because we don't have a system for them to get out quick enough."
Establishing the compact could take money. Vatterott's committee, with the help of the criminal justice department at the University of Missouri - St. Louis, has applied for a MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge grant, which is intended to help municipalities reduce their jail populations safely. The first round of winners will be announced in early May.