Academic journal article Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy

Six Months Later

Academic journal article Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy

Six Months Later

Article excerpt


ArchCity Defenders provides holistic legal advocacy to the homeless and poor in St. Louis, representing people in criminal and civil legal matters while connecting our clients with social services to address the root cause of their poverty. Our primary goal is to remove the legal barriers preventing our clients from accessing the social services necessary to exit or avoid homelessness. For the last five years, we have primarily focused on representation in municipal courts that have jurisdiction over mostly traffic-related offenses. We were prompted to conduct a court-watching program after directly representing clients in these courts and hearing stories of their experiences. Our program aimed to more closely observe what impact the municipal court system has on our clients' lives. Law students observed sixty courts and recorded their findings in a questionnaire modeled on a program at the Southern Center for Fluirían Rights. Our findings indicate that communities of color and the poorest St. Louisans are subjected to an unnecessarily expensive and incredibly inefficient network of municipal courts that siphon away vast amounts of their money to support a system seemingly designed to maintain the status quo, no matter how much it hurts the communities the system is supposed to serve.

Below is a summation of our findings of systemic practices and resulting effects on our clients:

1. Cities, police, and courts comprise the key players in a broader system that disproportionately impacts poor people and communities of color.

2. Courthouse policies and punishments-including jail time for inability to pay fines, closing courts to the public, refusing to allow children in the courtroom, and disproportionately fining the poorest of individuals-violate the Constitution, harm public confidence in the judiciary system and local government, and have compounding effects on our clients' lives.

3. As a part-time role, judges can be employed as both private attorneys and county prosecutors across St. Louis County municipalities.

4. Discrepancies between salaries in relation to job requirements, as well as the process for selecting/assigning judges and prosecutors to their positions, highlight an inequitable incentive structure that negatively impacts our clients.

5. Racial discrepancies in the makeup of the municipal court system (including police officers) vis-a-vis the communities they serve (that is, predominately White versus predominately Black) and statistical evidence of traffic citations suggest racially motivated tactics that benefit the revenue stream of these municipalities.

Overall, we observed that the poor-particularly, communities of color-suffer significantly in their forced dealings with St. Louis' municipal court system. While nonimpoverished people may be occasionally ticketed for an expired vehicle registration, outdated inspections, or driving without insurance- likely resulting in nothing more than a minor inconvenience or annoyance-the same citations can have compounding effects for the poor. Poor people and communities of color are pulled over more often, they are let go without a ticket less frequently, and they are in all likelihood the only group to see the inside of a jail cell for minor ordinance violations. Yet, such violations may exist as a consequence of their economic instability, with effects culminating in a single traffic stop, quickly leading to daunting fines, loss of driving privileges, and jail time for unpaid debt.

Matters are worsened by policies that close courts to the public and allow incarceration for the inability to pay debts. Our clients reported incidents of indigent mothers who "failed to appear" in court, resulting in warrants issued for their arrest. The reality is that, despite having arrived early or on time to court, they were turned away because that particular municipality prohibited the presence of children in court. …

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