The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New report details the disastrous municipal court system in St. Louis County

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Last month, I posted a long investigation of how the 80-plus municipal courts and 90-plus municipalities in St. Louis County, Mo., profit from poverty by extracting money from residents for minor infractions such as moving violations, occupancy permit violations, business permit violations and code violations. It’s a system built on a history of racial discrimination, one that supports far too many towns and the public officials who work for them considering the size of the county, and one that makes the survival of some of those towns contingent on issuing an extraordinary number of citations, arrest warrants and fines.

The system weighs most heavily on the poor, who are less likely to have legal representation. Those without attorneys are more likely to be swept into the cycle of accumulating fines and arrest warrants. And of course, those fines and court costs amount to a much higher proportion of a poor person’s income. Compounding all of this, most municipalities in the county derive most of their revenue from a sales tax. Poorer towns are less likely to generate revenue from a sales tax. That makes them more reliant on the municipal courts for revenue.

Now the nonprofit organization Better Together has put out a report offering a lot more detail on all of this. As the name suggests, Better Together advocates merging the city of St. Louis with St. Louis County, or at least merging many of the services between the two entities. In the past the group has been more about producing data and research than advocating explicit policies, although this report does more of the latter. The group’s data and work also suggest support for the idea of merging or eliminating a good number of St. Louis County’s tiny towns.

The report begins with an overview of the problem: