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ACD, SLU LAW and Equal Justice Under Law Reach Agreement With Jennings: End of Cash Bail, Reform of Municipal Courts

We’re excited to announce a proposed settlement agreement with the City of Jennings. The City of Jennings took the lead in helping us reach this agreement with Brendan Roediger, John Amman, and Steve Hanlon from SLU Law as well as Alec Karakatsanis of Equal Justice Under Law, who is bringing these cases and winning across the country.

Details can be found in the documents attached to Jeremy Kohler’s article on the Post-Dispatch’s website.

Here’s our press release on Jennings as well as broader reform for St. Louis County’s municipal court system:

Meaningful reform of our region’s municipal courts must be uniform, permanent, and enforceable. Today, ArchCity Defenders, Equal Justice Under Law, and Saint Louis University School of Law Legal Clinics took another major step towards such reform by entering into a proposed settlement agreement with the City of Jennings that echoes their earlier work in the City of Velda City. This proposed settlement, which would be enforceable in Federal Court, goes further than the agreement in Velda City and paves the way for meaningful reform in St. Louis County’s municipal court system. The proposed agreement includes the following:

● elimination of cash bail
● immediate release on signature or unsecured bond on a first arrest
● establishment of a meaningful inquiry into a person’s ability to pay
● elimination of the payment docket
● conversion of unpaid fines & fees to civil judgment
● no warrants or jailings for the failure to pay
● dismissal and forgiveness of all fines and fees on cases dating prior to 3/12/11

On the cusp of the Ferguson Commission’s public call for the Supreme Court of Missouri to consolidate, modernize, and professionalize these 81 part-time courts, municipalities are engaged in a defensive public relations campaign designed to preserve an inadequate and unjust system that has brought national embarrassment to St. Louis.

In the upcoming days, various municipalities will announce periods of warrant forgiveness and other reforms to their municipal courts. Just a few weeks ago, many of these municipalities advertised a program charging $100 to recall warrants. This week, many of these same communities are promising to remove warrants for free.

Temporary, voluntary, and unmonitored internal policies in 81 separate part-time courts with part-time judges and prosecutors will not solve the problems that plague our region. Under the current piecemeal approach to reform, there is nothing to stop these municipalities from going back to old policies in the near future.

Had these municipalities responded positively to the community’s demand for true amnesty in August of 2014, Ferguson and other cities could have been working on meaningful reform for the last 12 months. Instead, they waited for a year of sustained protest, federal litigation, state legislation, the Department of Justice investigation, and the Ferguson Commission’s calls to action. The steps these cities are taking are half-measures and do not adequately respond to the community’s demands.

Uniform, permanent, and enforceable reform that will actually change people’s lives includes the:

● Abolition of the currently existing municipal court system;
● Creation of a regional court system, open full time, with professional staff; and
● The implementation of the procedural protections proposed in Jenkins v. Jennings 4:15-cv-00252-CEJ and Pierce v. Velda City 4:15-cv-00570-HEA.

“The only true path to reform that changes the lives of poor people and Black people in this region necessarily includes full-time professional courts that don’t have conflicts of interest and can be meaningfully monitored,” said Professor Brendan Roediger, from Saint Louis University School of Law Legal Clinics. Thomas Harvey, Executive Director of ArchCity Defenders, a non-profit law firm, added, “The problem with voluntary orders in each municipalities is that they are not enforceable. Given their lived experience and history of systemic abuses revealed in our report and the DOJ’s report, our clients ask why anyone would trust the people who created this system to police it.” “We are very happy with the agreement. The City of Jennings worked from the outset to address our concerns. In the end, everyone agrees that it violates fundamental and longstanding principles of equality and fairness at the core of our legal system to keep a human being in a cage because of her poverty,” said Michael-John Voss of ArchCity Defenders.

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