Of the many signs carried by protesters in Ferguson and St. Louis over the past many months, “Municipal Court Reform NOW!” hasn’t been a popular one. But as the regional establishment declares the start of the “solutions phase” of Ferguson, court reform is on the lips of every enlightened politician and editorial board member.
Proposals to reform St. Louis County’s draconian judicial system, far from being sufficient or demonstrative of elite beneficence, only show how resistant Missouri state and local governments are to the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement. The political and economic system that killed Mike Brown is hardly budging.
For several years, municipal court reform in St. Louis County has been the fixation of two organizations: the ArchCity Defenders (a legal aid group) and Better Together, a consortium of local leaders pushing to consolidate the ninety municipalities that make up the county.
Their arguments for consolidation make sense. Tiny municipalities cannot possibly raise enough revenue through sales or real estate taxes to fund their budgets, so they use their police departments as revenue collectors. Cops overzealously pull over and ticket cars driving through their stretch of the interstate. Given St. Louis County’s extreme racial segregation and concentrated poverty, the drivers stopped tend to be black and poor.
Many of those who receive tickets cannot afford to pay them, or they cannot afford to miss a day of work to contest the fine in court. According to an ArchCity Defenders white paper, “Despite their poverty, defendants are frequently ordered to pay fines that are . . . triple their monthly income.”
Not a few municipalities use these traffic and court fees to fund up to 40 percent of their operating costs despite the state legal limit of 30 percent, an already astronomically high percentage that invites the exploitation of the poor by kangaroo courts and cops.
When fines go unpaid or court summons go unheeded, municipal courts issue arrest warrants. In a county of 1.3 million people, there were 412,851 active arrest warrants at the end of 2014, most of which were related to traffic violations. Getting stopped again means facing jail time and exorbitant fines — in short, debtors’ prison.
In the rush to be seen as dealmakers and champions of justice, Missouri politicians have latched onto court reform as the panacea. The state-appointed Ferguson Commission devoted one of its first hearings to the issue. Attorney General Chris Koster opened up investigations into thirteen municipalities for violating the 30 percent revenue threshold, and Democratic state senators introduced a bill that would lower the threshold to 10 percent. And the St. Louis Post-Dispatch rarely lets a week go by without trumpeting court reform as the most pressing regional issue next to preventing the Rams from fleeing to Los Angeles.
So why are the public officials in Jefferson City, Clayton, and St. Louis stopping at court reform? Why not dissolve all or most of the towns in the county and create a unified tax system that would provide equal services across the region?
Because that would mean chipping away at the racist system of class oppression that has sustained St. Louis County for decades. Most county municipalities were founded as whites-only suburbs for St. Louisans abandoning the city.
Wealthier whites moved en masse to the West County suburbs. Less affluent whites gradually left North County suburbs once black homeowners and tenants started moving in, while in most cases retaining control over municipal governments and courts. Cities like Ferguson and Berkeley (the site of another killing in December) used all the tools of American apartheid to keep black residents out — redlining, racial steering, racial covenants, and, when those failed, hate crimes.
If the regional inequalities are severe across the board, the inequities are most visible in public education. While wealthy white municipalities boast nationally recognized school systems, North County schools are some of the worst in the country. The Normandy School District, where Michael Brown was a student, ranks as the worst in Missouri and lost its accreditation in 2013.
A Missouri Supreme Court ruling allows students from unaccredited districts to transfer to other schools, and since 2013 one-quarter have left the Normandy district. But there’s a catch: the state doesn’t pay for transfer students’ tuition or transportation costs — the unaccredited district does. As a result, the already deeply underfunded Normandy district has been stuck with a $1.3 million bill. How did they cover it? By closing an elementary school and laying off one hundred teachers.
There is no discussion, then, of vastly increasing the resources of poor schools or attacking poverty — just an (unfunded) offer of exit. Inequality is allowed to fester, and only superficial nostrums are proposed.
Opposition to revenue sharing and integration of county schools comes from the highest levels. The courts compelled St. Louis County to use busing to integrate its schools in 1983, but Missouri killed the program in 1993 (with Governor Jay Nixon, then the state attorney general, leading the charge). Sharing tax funds among county public schools would meaningfully ameliorate racial and economic inequalities, so it’s politically dead on arrival.
Elites and wealthy residents in the county, it should be noted, aren’t speaking in the same voice of reform. Even Better Together, a group whose members and donors come primarily from the business community, has had trouble winning the necessary support to put municipal mergers on the ballot. (They favor consolidation for the same reason the Chamber of Commerce supports immigration reform: it could benefit businesses. The group projects a windfall from administrative savings that could then be funneled into tax cuts for businesses.)
Wealthy West County residents would not benefit from a radical reformation of the St. Louis County system, which is why they have been so eager to frame the debate on their own terms. Municipal court judges and North County elected officials don’t have nearly as much influence in local politics as West County elites, so they make convenient sacrificial lambs — even though there has been strikingly little discussion about what North County towns would do to make up for lost revenue. Faced with such constraints, municipalities would likely find other ways to legally rob their citizens while continuing to provide subpar social services.
Activists from Millennial Activists United and the Organization for Black Struggle, among others, have included municipal court reform on their lists of demands. From the beginning, protesters have identified the fee system as a synecdoche for a broader political and economic system that deems them expendable.
But elites have co-opted municipal court reform — and offered watered-down versions of even that demand — to mute calls for fundamental change. Other equally important demands, like a civilian oversight board or deeper reforms like ending mass incarceration, disarming the police, and wiping out poverty, have been met with opposition or simply ignored.
The movement’s target, both in Ferguson and across the country, is systemic violence and deeply rooted injustice. Rectifying that will take a lot more than erasing municipal lines.