Court study shows fines weigh heavily on poor black towns

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

ST. LOUIS, MO (KTVI) - An independent study supports recent complaints that small, municipal courts in St. Louis County are often revenue raisers for towns in the northern part of the county.
Better Together, a not-for-profit studying fragmented government in St. Louis County and City, issued the document Wednesday.

"Our report indicates a systemic problem that allows for some municipalities to survive on court fines and fees. Further data shows this is largely done on the back of poor black communities," said Dave Leipholtz, an attorney and the Director of Community Based Studies. Leipholtz found some St. Louis County towns that budget for an increase in court fines and fees. In other cases the courts produce revenue well beyond the cost of administering the judicial system.

Calverton Park topped the list at 66 percent of its general revenue derived from court fines and fees. Pine Lawn drew 48 percent and Normandy 40 percent. Twenty municipalities all north of Olive drew 20 percent or more of their general revenue from the fines and fees. Across St. Louis County communities averaged 13 percent of general revenue from the courts.
Not all of the fines are traffic related. Veteran municipal judge Frank Vatterott, who serves in Overland, said some fines come from prosecuting shop lifting and domestic abuse cases. But he agreed there are issues that need to be addressed to insure the municipal courts operate fairly and provide justice.

"I think it shows, unfortunately, for better or worse there are a lot of cities in the northern part of our county that exist on the traffic court. That's not healthy," he said.
Judge Vatterott is leading a group of judges, court administrators and social service experts called the St. Louis County Municipal Court Improvement Committee that is working to correct inequities in the court system. One suggestion is to develop a group of volunteer public defenders to provide legal advice to those attending the municipal courts.

"We can improve the atmosphere in court. We've already done that..some courts they didn't have a big courtroom. They weren't letting everybody in; that's against the Constitution," Vatterott said.
Ferguson has repealed its "failure to appear" offense and cancelled some court fees. It has extended its amnesty program to allow those with traffic charges to appear, set a new court date and have the warrant cancelled. On more serious charges, Ferguson is continuing to lower bonds to $100 even in cases of DWI and drug offenses.

Some municipalities in the I-70 corridor have run extensive speeding operations where tickets tripled in cost. Normandy Mayor Pat Green believes the actions by Pine Lawn, St. Ann and his police department have improved safety near Lambert Airport and cut back significantly on accidents.

But Dave Leipholtz said if the problem had been an issue the Missouri Highway Patrol would have been ticketing drivers.

Read the full study from "Better Together" here.

Read the full study from “Better Together” here.