Justice, Race And Municipal Courts

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American justice when municipal courts become gateways to modern day debtors' prison. Six months after the death of Michael Brown, we investigate.

Guardsmen stand in front the Ferguson Police Department Municipal Court bulding, Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. (AP)
Guardsmen stand in front the Ferguson Police Department Municipal Court bulding, Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. (AP)

Six months ago this week, Michael Brown was shot dead in Ferguson, Missouri.  Around the world, people wondered at the depth of anger and frustration that poured into Ferguson’s streets.  There are many strands to follow.  One goes to the municipal courts around St. Louis.  They are major money-makers for little cities like Ferguson.  Traffic fees and fines on many who are black and poor.  Jail time.  Lost jobs.  A sense of systematic oppression.  Debtors’ prison.  Now there’s reform talk.  It’s a national issue.  This hour On Point:  American justice and the rage in Ferguson.
-- Tom Ashbrook


Brendan Roediger, law professor at St. Louis University. (@roedigerbrendan)

Alec Karakatsanis, co-founder of the civil rights nonprofit Equal Justice Under Law. (@equalityalec)

Frank Vatterott, municipal court official, judge, and attorney. Chairs the Municipal Court Improvement Committee in St. Louis County.

Patricia Bynes, Democratic Committeewoman for Ferguson Township, Missouri. (@Patricialicious)

From Tom’s Reading List

NPR News: Civil Rights Attorneys Sue Ferguson Over 'Debtors Prisons' — "In a new challenge to police practices in Ferguson, Mo., a group of civil rights lawyers is suing the city over the way people are jailed when they fail to pay fines for traffic tickets and other minor offenses. The lawsuit, filed Sunday night on the eve of the six-month anniversary of the police shooting of Michael Brown, alleges that the city violates the Constitution by jailing people without adequately considering whether they were indigent and, as a result, unable to pay."

St. Louis Post Dispatch: Municipal court reforms gaining momentum, but how far will they go? — "The Municipal Court Improvement Committee, mostly judges, prosecutors and court officials, has introduced several proposed changes, according to a memo written by its chairman, Frank Vatterott, a defense attorney and veteran municipal court official who has been a judge in Overland since 1991. But a rival group says the proposals do not go far enough and said the committee was 'the foxes guarding the henhouse.'"

Washington Post: Missouri cities sued over municipal court practices — "Local plaintiffs represented by lawyers with Washington-based Equal Justice Under Law, Arch City Defenders of St. Louis and Saint Louis University School of Law sought class-action status in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, charging that the two cities’ municipal court policies violate the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits jailing those too poor to pay and allows the punishment only for those with means who willfully refuse."

This program aired on February 10, 2015.


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