New recommendations to improve St. Louis County municipal courts

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ST. LOUIS COUNTY, MO (KPLR) - A committee determined to reform St. Louis County's municipal court system is calling on the courts to voluntarily adopt new procedures to make the system fairer.

At the same time, court critics argue the committee, which is made up primarily of lawyers and court officials, is equivalent to the fox guarding the hen-house.

The Municipal Court Improvement Committee headed by Overland Municipal Judge Frank Vatterott is proposing alternative community service in place of traffic violation fines for the indigent, a new system to co-ordinate the payment of bench warrant bonds and uniform fines for traffic violations.

Eighty courts including one for unincorporated St. Louis County handle non-felony cases including traffic violations, shoplifting and domestic abuse.  The proposals would be voluntary according to the committee.

Vatterott said we've got to solve the problem of people who are incarcerated in one town so another town can come pick them up and put them in their jail on a bench warrant.  He wants a uniform bond schedule and a means for the defendant to pay both bonds at one location and be released immediately.  "They lose their job when they are locked up for a week," he said.  The system also pulls police officers off their patrol duty to transport people on minor charges.

Brendan Roediger of the SLU Law School Clinic warned, "There's no real enforcement for anything that the committee proposed."   He believes the St. Louis County Circuit Court and the Missouri Supreme Court should force changes including the elimination of bench warrants or failure to appear citations.

The Missouri Supreme Court has issued a rule effective July 1 that will require judges to order extra time to pay the fine or provide an installment payment plan if the defendant appears unable to pay the fine on the first court date.

Court critics have called for a "time bank" system to allow individuals to work for neighbors to pay off fines.  Vatterott said courts could not keep track of such work.

Instead, he is recommending organizations like United Way, Better Family Life and the St. Louis County Probation and Parole Office that already have systems in place to supervise community service work for charities.  Those agencies would then certify to the court when the service had been completed.  "We should have done that a long time ago," said Vatterott.