Ferguson, Mo., Judge Withdraws Thousands Of Arrest Warrants



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A judge in Ferguson, Mo., has announced he will withdraw thousands of arrest warrants for unpaid traffic violations and other minor offenses. But it may be just a start on reform in St. Louis County and around the country.

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We begin this hour with the change happening in the court system in Ferguson, Mo. A judge is withdrawing thousands of arrest warrants for unpaid traffic violations and other minor offenses. NPR's Joseph Shapiro has been looking into this move and reports there's pressure for similar reforms around the country.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The issue with the Municipal Court in Ferguson was that it was being used to generate money for the city by charging people for all sorts of minor offenses, from driving with a broken headlight or letting the grass grow too long in the front yard. And when poor people couldn't or didn't pay the fines which were usually hundreds of dollars, the money they owed went up. And if they still didn't pay, a warrant was issued for their arrest.

That's what lawyers and residents said, and it's what the Justice Department said in a scathing report last March. This all got attention after a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown. And city officials then made some changes. In the last year, the revenue collected from fines has dropped sharply.

DONALD MCCULLIN: What we'd like to do is alleviate the fear of people coming to court because some people fear coming to court because they fear they're going to be arrested and also to give people a fresh start.

SHAPIRO: That's Judge Donald McCullin. He is the retired St. Louis County Circuit Court judge who, in June, became the new municipal court judge in Ferguson. And this week, he announced all those outstanding arrest warrants will be canceled.

MCCULLIN: We have withdrawn close to 10,000 warrants.

SHAPIRO: That means people who haven't paid up past fines are not at risk - at least for now - of being arrested and taken to jail. But they still need to come to court and ask that their fines be lowered and pay them or ask for community service instead or to prove that they have no money and that the fines should be dismissed.

Thomas Harvey is an attorney at ArchCity Defenders, which represents the poor and homeless. He's filed a federal lawsuit against Ferguson over these warrants. He praises what the court did yesterday but says it doesn't go far enough.

THOMAS HARVEY: What was the motivation for mostly a white police force to stop mostly a black population and issue up to eight or nine tickets at a time?

SHAPIRO: He thinks the court should just drop all those old charges, even if it means some people won't be held accountable for their offenses.

HARVEY: Let's start over at zero. Let's hit the reset button.

SHAPIRO: Harvey says because of Ferguson, there's momentum to make changes around the country, and in St. Louis, there's more pressure for reform coming. A group of St. Louis County Municipal Court judges will announce their proposals for reform similar to Ferguson's on Thursday. A court suit against the neighboring town of Jennings could get settled this week. And next month, a working group put together by the Missouri Supreme Court will hold hearings.

Kimberly Norwood is a member of that reform commission. She's a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, and she says, in the end, it's police who have to change, too, and stop handing out all those tickets.

KIMBERLY NORWOOD: For those folks on the street, life has not changed. And so great, you do away with some warrants and this, but people are still getting harassed. The underlying structural problems have not gone away.

SHAPIRO: In Ferguson, Judge McCullin thinks there's more to come there and around the country.

MCCULLIN: Ferguson basically is the poster boy for problems - problems with municipalities, problems that exist around the country.

SHAPIRO: It's harder, though, to make change to the way other places charge court fines and fees without the kind of national scrutiny that's been focused on Ferguson. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.