After Ferguson: Small reforms, big potential

municipalcourt1Ferguson has consequences—and some of them may be positive.

The tragedy of Michael Brown’s death in August 2014 has been a consciousness-raiser with ramifications far beyond the boundaries of one small municipality called Ferguson. Demonstrators have used the event to highlight a range of unfair laws and policies in Ferguson—and in many other cities. And in what appear to be glimmers of awakening toward a more just system, some cities, including Ferguson, have been altering their policies. Here are some examples:

St. Louis City bans the box
For job-seekers with criminal records, employment applications can be a huge roadblock, because many include a check-box that indicates a previous felony conviction. It’s a disqualifier—even for people who have completed their sentences, finished parole and are “off paper.” And knowing that the box is waiting to trap them, many people feel that the job market is a hopeless place for them, and simply don’t bother to apply.

In October 2014, St. Louis City Mayor Francis Slay apparently saw the light and issued an order to ban the box from employment applications for city government jobs.

Philadelphia recently enacted a similar policy. Under Philadelphia’s new rules, “Ban the Box” provisions:

-Require employers to remove questions about criminal convictions from their job applications.
-Prevent employers from asking about criminal convictions during your first job interview.
-Protect job applicants from having criminal background checks done before the first job interview.
-Prohibit employers from firing you or making any other employment decision based on a closed case that did not result in a criminal conviction

Ferguson changes its failure-to-appear policy

The Ferguson Municipal Court no longer will levy a separate charge for “failure-to-appear,” a charge that adds what many call an undue, extra burden on defendants. Also, the Ferguson City Council is considering capping fine income at 15 percent of the city’s total revenue.

Municipal court reforms

As reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, St. Louis County recently proposed that the County Municipal Court do away with a $25 fee levied for infractions of county ordinances, in an effort to alleviate “the hardships that can result from large fines and costs for even minor infractions of the law.”

A newly formed St. Louis County Municipal Court Improvement Committee, a group of six municipal judges, lawyers and court administrators, will look at ways to reduce reliance on fines and bench warrants for revenue. That’s something critics say is a root cause of tension between people running the municipalities and people living in them.

Warrant amnesties
For a limited time, coinciding with the winter holiday season, 65 of St. Louis County’s 90 municipalities are allowing defendants with outstanding warrants to go to the municipal court in question during regular business hours and have all their warrants dismissed, if they post a $100 bond. The payment will not dismiss the underlying citations. Participants will be given a new court date and must show up to avoid getting another warrant.

The City of St. Louis has a similar program, instituted as a direct results of problems brought to light as a result of unrest in Ferguson. Under this plan, the City’s municipal court will automatically clear outstanding warrants for nonviolent traffic violations and allow offenders to reset the court dates without a fee. so long as they act by year’s end. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch calls this approach “the most progressive warrant forgiveness program in the region”. Under the program, about 220,000 outstanding warrants issued before Oct. 1, 2014 in the city will automatically be forgiven.

Creating a “warrant-free zone”

University City, an inner-ring St. Louis suburb, has eliminated a practice that discouraged citizens from attending city council meetings. The City Council has made itself a “warrant-free zone,” meaning that University City citizens with outstanding warrants for non-criminal charges will no longer be subject to arrest if they attend council meetings.

Councilman Stephen Kraft, one of the two sponsors, called the resolution symbolic and said in a statement that residents “can come and talk to your government without fear of being arrested.”

Of course, these changes do not answer all questions or address the much deeper, institutionalized problems that make life unduly difficult, especially for low-income and African-American residents of these communities.It’s not going to be enough for cities and courts to make small-bore changes, congratulate themselves on their new-found enlightenment, and stop there. Many citizens and civic groups are calling for many more sweeping, systemic reforms–and not just in Ferguson, Mo. But baby steps count, too.