Our Municipal White Paper is out! Read about it here: ArchCity Defenders Municipal Courts Whitepaper
Alongside protecting the individual, ArchCity Defenders is interested in encouraging systemic reform in Missouri’s state and St. Louis County’s municipal legal systems. Missouri’s municipal courts are frequently engaged in unconstitutional behavior, ranging from closing the courts to refusing to hold an indigency hearing to creating debtors prisons by sending people to jail for inability to pay fines. These ongoing violations of the most fundamental guarantees of the Constitution are the product of a disordered, fragmented, and inefficient approach to criminal justice in St. Louis County.
Missouri Supreme Court Rule 37:
ArchCity Defenders and the Clinical Law Offices of St. Louis University School of law, wrote a letter to the Missouri Supreme Court requesting that it exercise its superintending authority and convene a special rules committee to recommend appropriate amendments to Rule 37, with the objective of ensuring the fair and uniform administration of justice in municipal courts. As of 2013, according to the Office of the State Court Administrator, there were a total of 411,948 outstanding arrest warrants for violations of civil ordinances in St. Louis County, representing one warrant for every two adults in St. Louis County and more that 35% of the total outstanding arrest warrants in the State of Missouri. The letter pointed out that “this is nine times the number of arrest warrants outstanding in the City of Chicago.” This letter followed up a more detailed letter with the proposed Rule amendments sent in September.
After notification from the Clinical Law Offices of St. Louis University School of Law and ArchCity Defenders, as well as an investigation by an Open Courts Committee, the Honorable Maura B. McShane, the Presiding Judge of St. Louis County, wrote a letter with an attached voluntary order, requiring the courts to be open for everyone. Judge McShane has asked that the courts remove statements from their website prohibiting children or persons other than the defendant from entering the courtroom, and, as a constitutional right, courts must be open to the public. Read our letter in response here.
“[It is] alleged that the general public is being denied the Constitutional right of access to many of the municipal courts in St. Louis County. As you are aware access to courts is a Constitutional right granted to the general public through…the Missouri Constitution.”
– Judge Maura B. McShane
ArchCity Defenders recently released a whitepaper report regarding the use of St. Louis Municipal Courts as a large source of town revenue. When summoned to these courts, defendants frequently face jail as a result of their inability to pay court costs and fines when they plea guilty. As an important income stream, the Courts use the threat of jail to collect the outstanding fines. Yet, these municipalities fail to provide lawyers for those who cannot afford counsel. Courts also fail to make formal assessments of an individual’s ability to pay, in clear violation of Missouri Law. Upon revocation of probation because of their inability to pay, defendants are sentenced to jail or are arrested on warrants issued simply because of their lack of funds. We hope through a formal whitepaper report, the population’s constitutional rights will be upheld, and the municipalities will come to realize that running their courts as a source of income is both financially inefficient and detrimental to their communities. Since being released, The report has been cited in a variety of news sources including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, USA Today, NBC News, Newsweek, and Bloomberg Business Week.