The city of Ferguson, Mo., announced yesterday that it has withdrawn all of its arrest warrants issued before 2015, a total of about 10,000 warrants. On the face of it, that news sounds like a game changer, considering how much controversy Ferguson’s municipal court system has drawn since the death of Michael Brown last year.
But the city is not alone in pushing major warrant reforms, and in some ways its hand was forced into the decision. The real game changer? A state law set to take effect this Friday that will drastically limit the revenue municipal courts in St. Louis County can collect.
In anticipation of that law, other municipalities are issuing their own changes. Neighboring Kirkwood, for example, released a statement this week that it too was offering warrant relief.
"All warrants with the City of Kirkwood Municipal Court have been cancelled, and these cases are being assigned new court dates," the statement read.
The city of Dellwood, another of Ferguson's neighbors (which was also severely affected by last year's looting), issued similar changes several months ago, cancelling warrants for minor traffic-related infractions going back to April 2012. "We weren't necessarily collecting on those warrants anyways, so it was a way for us to clear out our systems," city administrator Cordaryl Patrick told Fusion in a phone conversation. "It was a way to show good faith after everything that's happened, and it's probably helping the people who can come back from under those warrants more than it's helping or hurting us."
Dellwood's move stands apart in that it was made well before the state law was passed, or even before it was being discussed in session. In the case of Ferguson, however, the city has made a move that it would ultimately have had to make anyways. So while the fact that the city has withdrawn warrants might be reason for some to applaud the action, it's worth keeping in mind that the city didn't really have a say in the matter.
As part of the new state law, revenues from municipal courts in St. Louis County will be capped at 12.5% of city budgets, down from the state's previous cap of 30%, which was rarely enforced. For fiscal year 2014, the courts in Ferguson accounted for about 20% of the city's revenue; a Department of Justice report found its court system to be operating with the express purpose of "maximizing revenue."
Other reports have likened the municipal court systems in the area to "debtors prisons" that routinely jail people for their inability to pay for civil infractions like simple traffic tickets.
The worst offender has historically been Calverton Park, a tiny municipality of about of about 1,300 people, which borders Ferguson. In 2013, it made an astonishing 66.32% of its revenue from municipal court fines and fees, according to a report by Better Together, a St. Louis watchdog group.
Using these funds, the small cities have long been able to keep themselves afloat. Facing arrest or even jail, people with warrants hanging over them are compelled to pay extraordinary fees for simple civil infractions, like traffic tickets, which only multiply when they are not paid. The Department of Justice found the use of warrants in Ferguson to be "staggering."
With the new law, cities like Ferguson have been forced to drastically cut off that revenue stream.
Ferguson Municipal Court Judge Donald McCullin, who was appointed to his position after the previous judge resigned, made the city's announcement yesterday.
All defendants will be "given new court dates" and will be offered alternate methods for clearing their cases, including new payment plan options, and community service, said a statement from the city.
The new move would "meet and exceed the requirements" set forth by the new state law, which goes into effect on Friday, the city of Ferguson's statement said.
"These changes should continue the process of restoring confidence in the Court, alleviating fears of the consequences of appearing in Court, and giving many residents a fresh start,” said McCullin. “Many individuals whose license has been suspended will be able to obtain them and take advantage of the benefits of being able to drive.”
And most importantly, defendants will no longer be thrown in jail for the simple inability to pay for bond.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.