By Lilly Fowler
Ahead of a major new municipal reform law taking effect this week, the municipal court in Ferguson announced sweeping changes on Monday.
Among the most significant was the decision by the court to withdraw all warrants issued prior to Dec. 31, 2014, whether such warrants are for minor traffic violations or more serious offenses. Stephanie Karr, municipal prosecutor for Ferguson, said close to 10,000 warrants would be affected by the change.
In addition, the Missouri Department of Revenue will reinstate suspended licenses that resulted solely from a failure to appear in court or a failure to pay a fine.
The changes are part of reforms taking place across a number of courts in St. Louis County in an effort to meet the requirements set by legislation known as Senate Bill 5. The reforms in Ferguson's municipal court take effect on Sept. 15.
The "changes should continue the process of restoring confidence in the court, alleviating fears of the consequences of appearing in court, and giving many residents a fresh start," said Ferguson Municipal Court Judge Donald McCullin, who was appointed to his position in June.
In order to resolve underlying charges, new courts dates will be given to defendants who have had their warrants erased, along with several options, such as payment plans and community service.
In the future, if an arrest warrant is issued for a minor traffic or housing code violation, a defendant will simply be given another court date, rather than face jail time or be forced to post a money bond of what was previously typically about $200.
Those arrested on a subsequent warrant will be released from custody after agreeing to an unsecured bond, or a promise to pay $200 if they fail to appear in court again.
Those with warrants for non-minor traffic or other violations, such as trespassing or possession of marijuana, will be released after agreeing to an unsecured bond in the amount of $300.
Thomas Harvey, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit that provides legal counsel to the poor, said he considered the use of unsecured bonds by the court to be the only significant change but wasn't convinced the reform would be implemented fairly.
"The fundamental question is why does anyone trust this court to change?" Harvey said. "It stands to reason that we ought to be skeptical about a town that has had a court like this for so long."
McCullin, for his part, said the changes implemented in the court will exceed the requirements set by the municipal court legislation taking effect Friday.
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