Ferguson Neighbor Reforms Its Court Too

ST. LOUIS (CN) – A proposed federal settlement would bring drastic changes to the municipal court in Jennings, Mo., similar to those imposed on its next-door neighbor, Ferguson.
     Among the changes in the city’s joint motion are that it will use civil debt collectors to get fines instead of jailing people, no longer requiring cash bail for most cases, releasing people immediately upon their first arrest for minor charges.
     The settlement also requires the city to conduct a meaningful inquiry into a person’s ability to pay a fine, and dismissal of charges and fines and fees on cases filed before March 12, 2011.
     The settlement between Samantha Jenkins et al. and the city, filed Wednesday, must be approved by a federal judge.
     The settlement stems from a February lawsuit that accused Jennings of running a modern-day debtors’ prison . A separate, nearly identical lawsuit was filed at the same time against neighboring Ferguson.
     The Ferguson lawsuit is still pending, but Ferguson Municipal Judge Donald McCullin this week announced a series of changes there that are not tied to that lawsuit.
     “In the upcoming days, various municipalities will announce periods of warrant forgiveness and other reforms to their municipal courts,” attorneys for the Jennings plaintiffs said. The attorneys said the reforms in Jennings will be more meaningful than those in Ferguson, because of the involvement of a federal judge.
     “Just a few weeks ago, many of these municipalities advertised a program charging $100 to recall warrants. This week, many of these same communities are promising to remove warrants for free,” the Jennings attorneys said.
     “Temporary, voluntary, and unmonitored internal policies in 81 separate part-time courts with part-time judges and prosecutors will not solve the problems that plague our region. Under the current piecemeal approach to reform, there is nothing to stop these municipalities from going back to old policies in the near future.”
     Jennings, pop. 15,000, is 90 percent black. Its median household income of $28,612 is 39 percent below the state median of $46,931, according to city-data.com.

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