Local municipal courts leave many in cycle of debt; fuel distrust of justice system - KMOV.com

Local municipal courts leave many in cycle of debt; fuel distrust of justice system

(KMOV.com) - Critics call them greedy, insensitive, kangaroo courts. Some officials say the worst municipal courts in St. Louis County are so far out of line that they hurt the entire community.

Angela Wilson says she's stuck in a tiny town injustice system.

"I think it’s crap and I’m not guilty anyway," Wilson Told News 4.

She tried to resolve her traffic case in Pine Lawn's crowded municipal court, but the prosecutor was unavailable, so Wilson and other defendants were sent home and told to come back.

“So, I'll be back for the third time. The first time I came here and pleaded not guilty. This time I came to finish it, but couldn't, and the next time is the third time. It's very inconvenient," Wilson said.

Pine Lawn pays for nearly half its budget with revenue generated through its municipal court. That's about $3.5 million in just the last two years. News 4 tried to speak to city officials about that issue, but none agreed to be interviewed.

The mayor, who is under federal indictment, declined to be interviewed. The new Pine Lawn prosecutor is Anthony Gray, one of the attorney's for Mike Brown's family. He also refused to discuss Pine Lawn’s courts.

Gray was previously Pine Lawn's Director of Public Safety, the equivalent of police chief. Prior to that he completed his first stint as the city's prosecutor.

81 of St. Louis County’s 90 municipalities have their own court system, which is a major source of revenue.

In 2013, Ferguson issued nearly 33,000 arrest warrants for non-violent offenses, many of which involved traffic violations. In many cases, multiple warrants were issued for a single defendant. The city only has a population of 21,000.

When News 4 interviewed Ferguson Municipal Court Judge Ron Brockmeyer several months ago, he was also the judge in Breckenridge Hills, and the prosecutor for the cities of Florissant, Dellwood and Vinita Park. Brockmeyer insisted he did not have any conflicts of interest.

“We're not looking to get into everyone's pocket. We're not looking to give everyone convictions. That's not the purpose of this court or any court,” said Brockmeyer.

The protests that erupted in Ferguson after the shooting of Michael Brown also brought attention to the municipal court systems that critics said were heavy-handed and deepened the community's resentment toward law enforcement and local government in general.

In response, Ferguson eliminated some court fees and Brockmeyer said Ferguson police stopped arresting people for failure to appear in court.  However, several months after Brown was shot and killed, other issues remained unchanged; all 6 of Ferguson's municipal court employees were still white, and nearly 9 out of 10 defendants were black.

“I think it sends a bad signal. I'll agree with you on that," Brockmeyer said in response to those statistics.

“People really feel abandoned by the justice system on a municipal level because some of these places are just using them as an ATM and these are populations that are largely poor," said David Leipholtz, who authored a study on local municipal courts for Better Together.

For Angela Wilson and the other defendants still held in a municipal court system critics call a debtor's prison, justice is slow and sometimes impossible to find.

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