FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: February 2, 2015
Media Contacts: Julia Ho, 806-535-4768 and Jeff Ordower, 314-267-4664
Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE) calls for abolition of racist municipal courts, moratorium on municipal bench warrants
Community group pressures County Exec Steve Stenger to take a stand on municipal court reform
St. Louis County--This afternoon, Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE) held a press conference in front of County Executive Steve Stenger’s office to release their study, “Transforming St. Louis County’s Racist Municipal Courts” and call on Stenger to take a stance on the issue of municipal court reform. In the wake of Ferguson,the St. Louis County municipal courts emerged as a prime example of entrenched, structural racism in the region. MORE called on County Executive Steve Stenger to use all powers at his disposal to correct the injustice and predatory of racism of the municipal courts.
The study calls for a host of reforms to the municipal courts, including: the abolition of the municipal courts, the elimination of jail time as a possible consequence for non-violent municipal offenses, and the option of using timebanking (a reciprocal form of community service) to pay off non-violent municipal ordinance fines. The group also called for a moratorium on the issuance of bench warrants for failure to appear in municipal court until significant restructuring of the municipal courts has occurred.
The group is calling for all municipal offenses to be moved to associate circuit court. “We have to stop pretending the municipal courts are real courts,” said MORE Executive Director Jeff Ordower,” When court occurs in a high school gymnasium, when prosecutors for one municipality moonlight as judges for another, it’s not a court--it’s a for-profit collection agency.”
The speakers also addressed the recommendations made by the St. Louis County Municipal Court Improvement Committee, headed by Overland Judge Frank Vatterott. “The Vatterott Commission’s recommendations are nothing short of a sham,” said MORE member Qiana Williams. “The members of the commission literally profit off of the municipal court system every single day; they will never call for the abolition of the courts or real re-structuring to make them more just.”
Ms. Williams specifically pointed to Vatterott’s recommendation to have volunteer lawyers available on municipal court dates to offer “legal advice” to defendants who cannot afford lawyers. “The Vatterott Commission is recommending creating two different justice systems--one for poor people who cannot afford lawyers and one for rich people who can.” MORE is demanding that all indigent people be appointed public defenders.
At the press conference, Ms. Williams shared how the bench warrant system has “shaped the course of her life.” Several years ago, she was jailed for seventeen days while she was a student at Forest Park Community College. After being released, she could not catch up in her classes, but it was too late to withdraw. Eventually, she was forced to choose between paying for school and paying off traffic tickets, and she had to choose to pay off traffic tickets in an attempt to stay out of jail.
The full report can be found here: http://www.organizemo.org/publications
Members of the campaign are available to talk to press about their experiences with the municipal court system at request.