K.F. says the municipal judge jailed her for nearly fifty days because she could not come up with the cash needed to pay her traffic fines. When the judge came to the realization that she would never be able to gather the money from a jail cell, K.F. was released.
In tackling the fragmentation issue in St. Louis, municipal courts stand out as one of the most obvious problems. Reports of law enforcement and the courts being used to fund city coffers, unequal justice being dispensed by area courts, and other abuses, prompted the Missouri General Assembly to take action. Senate Bill 5 was passed, constraining certain municipalities from raising revenue through police and court action. While provisions of this law were recently struck down by the Cole County Circuit Court, an appeal is likely. Should the law survive in its current or modified form, it may force some municipalities to go out of existence. Whether the law survives, we can do better.
What if we unified the St. Louis region into a government composed of nine boroughs, with nine borough courts to deal with ordinance enforcement? Certainly the reduction from eighty-one to nine would free up funds to pay full-time borough judges, with salaries pegged to Associate Circuit Court levels set by State law. Such judges would be appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council of the borough in which these judges preside for limited, four-year terms. Fewer courts will mean an increase in each court’s docket. Scheduled daytime and night courts will be required to allow all defendants access to justice without losing their jobs.
Borough judges would form a court en banc to standardize procedures and sanctions. With uniform standards instituted across the boroughs, professionalism and accountability will be introduced in the borough courts. The various municipal attorneys should be eliminated and replaced by full-time borough attorneys appointed in each borough by the mayor, with appropriate staffing. The back-scratching inherent in our current system would be eliminated, and attorneys would not be allowed to represent clients in one court, prosecute traffic violations or serve as the judge in another court.
What if we were really bold and revamped the system; keeping ordinance violations in the borough courts and moving more serious offenses to the State Courts? What if we said that no one should be sentenced to jail for an ordinance violation? Yes, shoplifters would be fined, but if they are repeat offenders, they should be charged under state law and prosecuted by the County Prosecuting Attorney. We would still need hold-over facilities for detaining suspects pending investigation and warrant application, but we need to institute a system of detention for these purposes- not imprisonment.
What about the drunk driver? Why not move into the 21st Century and either contract with an alcohol and drug treatment center or create one through the St. Louis Council of Mayors? This process may lead to conviction and sentence, but why not first try treatment and rehabilitation and attempt to reduce the number of chronic offenders.
Court reform offers us a chance to make a big difference, and even set an example. It is in the interest of fairness and the interest of our community that these problems be corrected.