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The predatory, broken municipal governments of St. Louis County

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Balko is doing some extraordinary and important work here:

“She was crying as I explained the situation to her,” Voss says. “So then started to cry as I explained it her. One of the really frustrating things about what’s happening here is that this system is breaking good people. These are people just trying to get by, just trying to take care of their families.” Voss’s eyes well up as he talks about Bolden. This isn’t just an attorney defending his client. It’s a guy who is concerned about what’s happening to another human being. Bolden is a single black woman with four kids. She has several tattoos. It’s easy to see how cops might target her, or court officials might dismiss her. But Voss points out that she had already earned an associate’s degree in medical assistance. And while dealing with all of the arrests and the harassment, she earned another in paralegal studies.

The Foristell warrant stemmed from a speeding ticket in 2011. As mentioned before, Bolden didn’t show up in court because she didn’t have the money to pay it and feared they’d put her jail. It’s a common and unfortunate misconception among St. Louis County residents, especially those who don’t have an attorney to tell them otherwise. A town can’t put you in jail for lacking the money to pay a fine. But you can be jailed not appearing in court to tell the judge you can’t pay — and fined again for not showing up. After twice failing to appear for the Foristell ticket, Bolden showed up, was able to get the warrant removed and set up a payment plan with the court. But she says that a few months later, she was a couple days late with her payment. She says she called to notify the clerk, who told her not to worry. Instead, the town hit her with another warrant — the same warrant for which she was jailed in March.

Bolden’s bond was set at $1,700. No one she knew had that kind of money. Bolden broke down; she cried, she screamed, and she swore. She was given a psychological evaluation, and then put on suicide watch. She finds that memory particularly humiliating. Bolden would remain in jail for two weeks, until Foristell’s next municipal court session. She wouldn’t let her children come visit her. “I didn’t want them to see me like that,” she says. “I didn’t want them to think it was normal, that it was okay for one of us to be in jail. I missed them so much. But I wasn’t going to let them see me like that.”

While in jail, she missed a job interview. She fell behind in her paralegal studies. When she finally got her day in court, she was told to change out of her jail jumpsuit into the same clothes she had worn for three days straight, and that had been sitting in a bag for the previous two weeks. She was brought into the courtroom to face the judge, handcuffed, in dirty clothes that had been marinated in her own filth. “I was funky, I was sad, and I was mad,” she says. “I smelled bad. I was handcuffed. I missed my kids. I didn’t feel like a person anymore.”

It’s long, but read the whole thing. I confess I was actually surprised when the “three outstanding warrants per household” in Ferguson fact first came to light; it’s now clear in St. Louis County, this is par for the course, and there are far worse examples–the extremely misleadingly named “Country Club Hills” has 26 outstanding warrants per resident. In a long piece filled with rage-inducing anecdotes, one stood out for me:

But perhaps the most gaping divide between having and not having an attorney is that many people think that if they can’t pay their fines, they’ll be arrested and jailed the moment they show up in court. So they don’t show up. In truth, you can’t be jailed if you don’t have the money to pay a fine. But you can be jailed for not showing up in court to answer a charge. So under the mistaken belief that showing up in court broke will land them in jail, people chose not to show up . . . which then lands them in jail.

“That’s probably the single biggest misunderstanding out there,” says Vatterott, the former municipal judge. “We have to do a better job of informing people. I think it should say on the notice that even if you have no money, you need to show up, and it should be made clear that you won’t be sent to jail. But when I bring that up, the prosecutors don’t like it. The arrest warrants bring more fines and make the towns more money.”

In the short run, a democratic revival is clearly and badly needed, and one simply has to hope that perhaps this moment of sunshine on these governments will produce something of that sort. One possible goal to organize around:

Just last week, the ArchCity Defenders petitioned Ferguson Mayor James Knowles to grant a mass clemency for the town’s 40,000+ outstanding warrants for traffic and other nonviolent offenses. That isn’t a structural change so much as a plea for a sign of goodwill. And it’s far from certain it will happen. Vatterott says he’s also organizing talks to push for reforms on other points of agreement, like a uniform set of rules for the courts, making notices easier to understand, and making sure defendants know that they can’t be jailed for lacking the funds to pay a fine.

I’d love to see outsiders run for office in these communities with such a mass clemency as  a central campaign promise. Of course, the municipal budgets would take a huge hit, and given how tiny and hollowed out the tax bases of these towns are, there aren’t many clear options to replace the lost funds. Which leads to another obvious conclusion:

“There are too many towns,” says Vatterott. There are too many towns, and not enough taxpayers to sustain them. How to fix that problem is another matter. There has long been a movement in St. Louis to merge the county with the city. That movement has picked up steam recent years as advocacy groups like Better Together have pushed proposals to merge a number of public services. But real change would require a good portion of these towns to merge with other towns, or to dissolve themselves entirely. That would require the town councils or boards of aldermen to vote themselves out of a job.

 

“You have these fiefdoms across the county where a small percentage of people hold power over a small bit of territory,” Kirkland says. “They aren’t going to let go of that easily.” Some towns have begun to share police services, or to contract police services out to St. Louis County. That at least means there are fewer cops per resident to hand out fines. But the cops and courts are still geared more toward generating revenue than promoting public safety.

Here in Dayton, it’s hard to imagine city-county consolidation, given the present political dynamics (racial and otherwise). But it does manage to happen, and happen in places I would imagine it would be impossible, such as Louisville. It’s obviously not sufficient to fix this nightmare, but I wonder if it might not be necessary.

 

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