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Members of Missouri National Guard stand outside of the Ferguson Police Department and the Municipal Court in Ferguson, Mo. on Nov. 26, 2014. (Photo: Jeff Roberson/AP) 

'A Fresh Start': Ferguson to Withdraw Thousands of Arrest Warrants

Scrutiny placed on Ferguson's courts and law enforcement agencies revealed endemic racism coursing throughout the criminal justice system

Deirdre Fulton

A municipal court judge in Ferguson, Missouri, on Monday announced sweeping changes to the city's court system, including an order to withdraw all arrest warrants issued in the city before December 31, 2014.

The announcement came ahead of a major new municipal reform law taking effect this week—Senate Bill 5, which will put a cap on court revenues from fines and fees, among other things. Stephanie Karr, municipal prosecutor for Ferguson, said close to 10,000 warrants would be affected by the change. 

The "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 Ferguson Municipal Court Judge Donald McCullin, who was appointed to his position in June.

Scrutiny placed on Ferguson's courts and law enforcement agencies in the wake of Michael Brown's shooting last summer revealed endemic racism coursing throughout the criminal justice system.

As Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post explains:

The protests in Ferguson last August brought focus on the work of ArchCity Defenders and other organizations that had been highlighting the blatant conflicts of interest and unconstitutional policies that plagued St. Louis County's bizarre network of municipal courts. Legislation pushed by state Sen. Eric Schmitt (R)—which had supporters ranging from the St. Louis Tea Party to the American Civil Liberties Union to leading law enforcement officials in the region—passed the Missouri legislature and was signed by Gov. Jay Nixon (D) earlier this year.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that new court dates will be given to defendants who have had their warrants erased, along with several options for disposing of their cases, such as payment plans or community service.

Furthermore, the Post-Dispatch continues:

In the future, if an arrest warrant is issued for a minor traffic or housing code violation, a defendant will simply be given another court date, rather than face jail time or be forced to post a money bond of what was previously typically about $200.

Those arrested on a subsequent warrant will be released from custody after agreeing to an unsecured bond, or a promise to pay $200 if they fail to appear in court again.

Those with warrants for non-minor traffic or other violations, such as trespassing or possession of marijuana, will be released after agreeing to an unsecured bond in the amount of $300.

ThinkProgress adds that McCullin also reinstated all driver’s licenses suspended solely because the driver failed to appear in court or pay a fine. "Suspended license penalties tend to trap poor people into cycles of debt," writes Aviva Shen, "as they have little choice but to continue driving to work and risk being arrested for driving with a suspended license."

Ferguson Township Democratic committeewoman Patricia Bynes described the changes as "an olive branch."

"Because of the pushing and the pressure that protesters put on Ferguson, I am considering it a win and a very big win," she said.

However, the HuffPo notes, there is much more to be done:

Ferguson is far from the only municipality in St. Louis County that has major problems with its municipal court system. Many of the courts only meet every few weeks, are only staffed part-time and provide no meaningful adversarial process. A lot of cities in the region treat the courts as sources of revenue generation rather than independent judicial entities geared toward fairness. The problems with the courts are decades old and had mostly been ignored until protests after Brown's death last August helped bring attention to the issues.

"No one in this region lives their life fully in Ferguson," Thomas Harvey, the executive director of ArchCity Defenders, told the New York Times. "Ferguson can make these fixes, and they’re a great start. They’re almost all the way there. But in terms of the impact on poor people’s life in this region, it doesn’t change anything" unless other courts make the same changes.


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