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Text Alert: St. Louis' Post-Ferguson Approach to Court Fines

The county's court system is still a confusing tangle of fees and court dates. The creators of a new online tool hope to change that.

Three years ago, the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., triggered widespread civil unrest that eventually spurred a movement against discrimination in policing and mass incarceration. Federal investigators at the time discovered deep-seated practices of racial bias in the city’s police force, which ticketed, arrested, stopped and searched black citizens at staggeringly disproportionate rates to their white counterparts.

But there was a less expected finding, too: Investigators revealed that municipal courts in Ferguson were using public safety and court fines as a revenue source for the city, disproportionately affecting low-income people of color.

In other words, the city, its police force and its court system were issuing tickets to black people for all manner of offenses (broken taillights, rolling through a stop sign, even loitering), and then using the funds from those fines to prop up the city budget. The federal report called it “conduct that routinely violates the Constitution and federal law.”

And the problem wasn’t isolated to Ferguson: The whole St. Louis area was engaging in similar practices.

Since then, Missouri has passed broad reforms capping court revenues, limiting fines for traffic and city ordinance violations and banning jail time for failure to pay. Yet even after these changes, the system is still riddled with problems.

In April, the Missouri state auditor released a damning report on Ferguson’s municipal court system, charging it with incompetence, disorganization and the collection of at least $26,000 in illegal fees. In general, navigating the court system in St. Louis County is still a daunting challenge.

But a new website seeks to change that.

Last week, the Civic Tech and Data Collaborative of St. Louis, a group of public interest initiatives, tech partners and local community organizations, launched YourStLCourts, where users can punch in their ticket number, driver’s license number or look up the general area where they got pulled over, and find information about the violations they’re being charged with, along with their court dates, potential fine amounts and any outstanding warrants. Users can also sign up through the site for text message alerts to remind them of their court dates.

Such an innovation was urgently necessary in St. Louis County because of the opaque nature of the previous system, says John Cruz of RISE, a local community partner with CivTech St. Louis who's helping roll out the tool. There are nearly 90 municipalities in the county, all with different court systems, so it’s not always clear which jurisdiction your ticket is in and where you should go to court, he adds. Sometimes, people don’t have the bandwidth to figure it all out on their own.

“We’ve talked to a lot of people with kids and two jobs and they just forget about [their court dates],” Cruz says. “And then they get in a car accident or are the victims of a crime, and the police show up and have to arrest them [for an outstanding warrant].”

So far, the implementation of the tool has been successful. The prototype was developed at the 2015 Global Hack competition, and in 2016 the county and the University of Missouri St. Louis received a MacArthur Foundation grant to help bring the project online. CivTech St. Louis and its partners are now trying to promote awareness of the tool, running a radio campaign and distributing promotional materials in county libraries. 

But there are some logistical barriers left to overcome.

Right now, the tool only works for the county court system. Municipalities, which have their own systems, have not yet been included. The logistics of connecting so many different jurisdictions -- and so many different software vendors -- and culling all the relevant data into one user-friendly site is a tall order. But Cruz says he's confident it will begin happening soon.

In the meantime, CivTech St. Louis will be measuring the success of the current site by tracking the number of people who use it and whether that results in a reduction in failure-to-appear charges and, over time, a reduction in the county’s overall incarceration rate.

“Phone and text reminders, online tools -- these are helpful things to have,” says Nusrat Choudhury, a staff attorney at the ACLU’s racial justice program who works on cases involving municipal courts and debtors' prisons. “Courts need to be more accessible to people because the reality is that most people want to comply.”

However, Choudhury says, states and localities should be careful not to rely solely on increased transparency to fix the problem.

“These kinds of tools don’t solve two critical issues: These courts are generating money for the city, and sometimes the state as well, and as long as they’re relied upon to do that, we won’t see justice in the courtroom. The second thing is [these tools] do not address what judges are doing in the courtroom.”

For that, Choudhury suggests going the way of localities like Biloxi, Miss., which created a public defender’s office specifically to help people caught up in the churn of the court system. In Ohio, the state Supreme Court created bench cards instructing all state judges how to assess people’s ability to pay and how to use incarceration as a last resort, not as a first reaction. Steps like these, says Choudhury, can have a dramatic effect on eliminating debtor’s prisons.

At the end of the day, YourSTLCourts itself doesn’t address these systemic issues. Nonetheless, it's a valuable tool, says Steven Bosacker of Living Cities, another CivTech partner (and a partner with Governing on the City Accelerator project).

“No one is going to tell you this is going to solve all the problems in our criminal justice system,” he says. “But if it makes what feels like a hostile system or a foreign system understandable [to people], then that’s a big step.”

Natalie previously covered immigrant communities and environmental justice as a bilingual reporter at CityLab and CityLab Latino. She hails from the Los Angeles area and graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in English literature.
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