New Ferguson Judge Is Finally Doing Something About Abusive Court

He says the reforms mean "a fresh start."

WASHINGTON -- Ferguson Municipal Court Judge Donald McCullin issued an order on Monday that attempts to address some of the damage caused by St. Louis County's practice of issuing arrest warrants and harsh penalties for minor violations, a revenue-driven approach the Department of Justice criticized in a March report.

The judge's order withdrew all arrest warrants issued before this year, and reinstated drivers licenses that were suspended only because of a missed court date or failure to pay a fine.

The move comes a year after after the death of Michael Brown helped call attention to the abusive practices of municipal courts around St. Louis County that undermined relationships between police and communities in the region.

McCullin said the changes would give many residents "a fresh start." In a statement, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles framed the changes as a proactive step the city was taking that could help "restore confidence" in the municipal court system, which has been the subject of not only a damning federal investigation, but also is the target of a federal city rights lawsuit that argued the city was essentially running a debtor's prison.

The protests in Ferguson last August brought focus on the work of ArchCity Defenders and other organizations that had been highlighting the blatant conflicts of interest and unconstitutional policies that plagued St. Louis County's bizarre network of municipal courts. Legislation pushed by state Sen. Eric Schmitt (R) -- which had supporters ranging from the St. Louis Tea Party to the American Civil Liberties Union to leading law enforcement officials in the region -- passed the Missouri legislature and was signed by Gov. Jay Nixon (D) earlier this year.

The new changes in Ferguson come after a Justice Department report on the municipal court system that found evidence of racist emails and a system geared toward raising revenue for the city rather than keeping people safe. Federal investigators found that Ferguson officials held negative stereotypes of African-Americans, with many of them saying that the lack of "personal responsibility" in "certain segments" of the community was responsible for the large number of arrest warrants issued.

The changes also followed a lawsuit against the court's practices brought by ArchCity Defenders. That organization also won a settlement from nearby Velda City, a tiny municipality running an "illegal" bail system where a current member of Ferguson's City Council served as municipal judge.

While many Ferguson officials responsible for the practices of the municipal court have resigned and one was forced out, Ferguson's top prosector is still in place and recently prosecuted individuals arrested under questionable circumstances in August 2014.

Ferguson is far from the only municipality in St. Louis County that has major problems with its municipal court system. Many of the courts only meet every few weeks, are only staffed part-time and provide no meaningful adversarial process. A lot of cities in the region treat the courts as sources of revenue generation rather than independent judicial entities geared toward fairness. The problems with the courts are decades old and had mostly been ignored until protests after Brown's death last August helped bring attention to the issues.