A St. Louis non-profit dedicated to supporting African-American families is holding its annual warrant amnesty project this week.
Better Family Life has made arrangements with more than 50 area municipalities to clear outstanding warrants for traffic and misdemeanor charges. St. Louis County warrants for outstanding child support can also be cleared.
Amid growing momentum for municipal court reform, St. Louis and several municipalities in St. Louis County have held their own amnesty events in recent months. But fear sometimes stops people from taking advantage of those opportunities, said Better Family Life’s James Clark during the organization’s first amnesty event, held Saturday at St. Louis Community College - Forest Park.
“This community trusts Better Family Life. So when it’s a Better Family Life amnesty program they know that it’s not a sting,” Clark said. “They know that they can come, we will start on time, we will treat everybody with dignity and with respect and we’ll give them top-notch service to address an issue that has literally derailed their lives.”
People with outstanding warrants from participating jurisdictions can receive vouchers for new court dates by attending one of the three events:
· Saturday, Aug. 1 at STLCC-Forest Park, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
· Wednesday, Aug. 5 at STLCC-Florissant Valley, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
· Saturday, Aug. 8 at STLCC-Meramec, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Individuals will then have to visit the municipalities that issued their warrants, receive a new court date, attend their new court date and pay whatever fines and fees the court mandates in order to avoid the issuance of a new warrant.
St. Louis resident Eric Bass attended Saturday’s amnesty event. He said he avoided his court date because he didn’t have the money to pay the fines and fees.
“ I just started back working. It’s kind of hard when you’re working minimum wage and you’ve got a $500 rent, you got a license, you’ve got to take care of food,” Bass said.
Because he missed the court date, a warrant was then issued for his arrest.
“I thank God for a place like this today so I can take care of this so I don’t have to duck and dodge from the police,” Bass said. “I don’t like ducking and dodging. That gets old sometimes and I’m already 47. I don’t need any more grey hairs on my head.”
Being arrested because of an outstanding warrant can cause its own headaches for someone without much money because they can’t leave jail without posting bond.
A Missouri Supreme Court ruling that went into effect July 1 now prohibits courts from issuing warrants for failure to pay court fines and fees, as long as the individual shows a good faith effort to pay. But warrants can still be issued for failure to appear in court.
James Clark told the amnesty attendees about the new ruling and recommended that people who can’t pay their fines ask for community service instead.
“The courts have really softened their approach (in the wake of the U.S. Department of Justice report on Ferguson),” Clark said. There’s a lot more that can be done.”
Better Family Life began organizing warrant amnesty events in 2000, but James Clark said the effort was “stymied by the lack of support coming from the courts.” The organization began holding the events again in 2005.
“We saw this as an issue long before the Department of Justice came in. We feel vindicated and that report validated something that we knew a long time ago — that there is a disproportionate number of African Americans who have literally had their lives derailed because of small violations of the law,” Clark said.
According to Clark there’s been about a 40 percent increase in municipal court participation in the Better Family Life amnesty project this year over last year.
Municipal court reform was a focus during the 2014 Missouri legislative session, resulting in a reduction in the amount of money municipalities can collect from fines and fees. And the U.S. Department of Justice also recommended municipal court reform in St. Louis County in the Ferguson report it released in March.
Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.