BxD Holistic Defense Partner ArchCity Defenders Received National Attention for White Paper on St. Louis County Municipal Courts

The ArchCity Defenders, a holistic legal services office in St. Louis, released a white paper earlier this year detailing the injustices of the St. Louis County Municipal Courts. The report has received extensive coverage in both local and national media organizations, including The New York Times, National Public Radio, The Huffington Post, FiveThirtyEight, and the Riverfront Times.

In 2013, The Bronx Defenders selected the ArchCity Defenders¬†to participate in a year-long technical assistance and training program through the Center for Holistic Defense. With funding and support from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Center for Holistic Defense has trained legal services providers from across the country on how to adopt holistic defense in their own jurisdictions since 2010.

The Bronx Defenders is proud to have worked together with the ArchCity Defenders and applauds the staff of the ArchCity Defenders for their work on the Municipal Courts white paper, which focuses on the injustices and collateral consequences that ArchCity Defenders clients face as a result of minor charges such as traffic violations. The report is emblematic of the leadership that the ArchCity Defenders has displayed throughout the past three months in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting and the injustices throughout St. Louis that have come to light since. Among the revelations included in the white paper are:

  • Approximately half of the 60 municipal courts studied in the white paper engage in unconstitutional practices that undermine public trust and place significant financial burdens on citizens and municipalities alike.
  • Municipal courts not only repeatedly imposed fines upon individuals who were subjected to disproportionate stops by the police and but also incarcerated those individuals on account of being unable to pay those fines.
  • Individuals appearing in Municipal Courts were forced to appear in court without legal representation and were often denied amendments to traffic violations solely on account of their inability to pay attorneys’ and courts’ fees.
  • People arrested for failing to appear in court or for failing to pay fines often spent as many as three weeks in jail.
  • The Municipal Courts frequently ordered individuals to pay fines that amounted to three times their monthly incomes.
  • Despite a Missouri Law providing for hearings to determine individuals’ ability to pay fines, such hearings rarely took place.
  • Court fines accounted for a significant source of revenue for many municipalities, creating a perverse incentive to criminalize poverty. In Bel-Ridge, the municipal budget for 2014 estimated that the local municipal court would collect an average of roughly $450 per household.
  • Municipal Court judges improperly barred some individuals from bringing their children to court, forcing those individuals to decide between missing court dates and leaving their children outside the courtroom. On one occasion, a father’s decision to leave his children with a friend after being denied entry to the courthouse caused him to face child endangerment charges.
  • In 2013, the Ferguson Municipal Court issued approximately three warrants per household.

As the white paper explains, the negative effects brought about by the St. Louis County Municipal Courts spread far beyond the courthouses by creating barriers to stable housing and employment. In response to the findings included in the white paper, the ArchCity Defenders has proposed a rule requiring that fines be proportionate to individuals’ incomes and will develop a follow-up white paper detailing a strategy for comprehensive reforms to the St. Louis. County Municipal Courts.