A voluntary effort to reform the municipal courts in St. Louis County is getting a financial boost from the MacArthur Foundation.
A group that includes researchers from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and officials from local municipal courts, the St. Louis County police, St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch's office, and state court administrators has received $150,000 to get a better understanding of who is coming into the municipal court system in St. Louis and why they are ending up in jail. The funds will also help the group refine programs to reduce that number.
"The end use to me should be programs that directly help the unnecessary incarceration in the municipal courts," said Frank Vatterott, the municipal judge in Overland and the chair of a voluntary committee looking to reform the courts.
Nearly 200 groups applied for funding from the MacArthur Safety and Justice Challenge. St. Louis County was one of 20 jurisdictions to receive the planning grant, and it is now eligible to apply for a second round of funding that would allow the court to implement a program to reduce incarceration.
"My dream would be to have a central office for the administration of municipal courts in the St. Louis region, which would support programs for these cities to offer alternative community service, public defenders, volunteer legal assistance, and other tools for defendants," Vatterott said.
Most defendants end up in jail because they cannot pay a fine and are afraid to show up for court, he said, which leads to an arrest warrant being issued for failure to appear. Community service options -- and attorneys to help defendants navigate the system -- should reduce that number, Vatterott said.
The $150,000 is a pittance compared to the second round of funding, which could total $10 million over five years. This grant will mostly go to pay research assistants to gather and sort the incarceration data, said Beth Huebner, an UMSL criminology professor who is leading the research team.
"I’m excited about the money, don’t get me wrong," she said. "But it’s also all the resources behind MacArthur. And also, that sort of prestige makes people in the community more willing to show up as well and gives our whole working group a little bit more legitimacy."
Vatterott, the municipal judge in Overland, said he was "tremendously excited" when he found the team had won the planning grant.
"This reform was due to come," he said. "Most of us knew there was a certain amount of abuses in the system, and a lack of uniformity, and what Ferguson did was just focus on it and allow people that were hurt ...to be heard."
Nasser Arshadi, the vice provost for research at UMSL, called the work a natural fit for the university, which is less than five miles from where 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed last August.
"There's a significant pent-up demand in the region for justice reform," Arshadi said. "In our early conversations with senior members in St. Louis County, we came to the conclusion that there are all kinds of important people who want to address this problem. MacArthur gave us a very timely platform to do so."
Professors from UMSL's criminal justice and criminology, social work, and mental health programs will all contribute to the research.
Reform vs elimination
Vatterott remained dismissive of calls to disband the municipal court system entirely. Cases handled at the local level, he said, would get lost at the state level.
"I want to make it clear that I am not in favor of this work in order to keep alive these little cities that might otherwise go under because of Macks Creek," he said, referring to the measure that limits the amount of revenue cities can collect from traffic fines to 12.5 percent. "... regardless of whether we have 80 courts of 50 courts, we still have unnecessary incarceration."
In addition to Vatterott's efforts with the St. Louis County Municipal Court Improvement Committee, the Supreme Court of Missouri formed a working group to evaluate changes to local courts. And legislation awaiting action by Gov. Jay Nixon also sets new operating standards for the region's courts. The same measure set traffic fee revenue at 12.5 percent.
The group's application for the second round of funding is due in early January.
Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann