« Ending Mass Criminalization

Policy 2: Municipal Court Reforms

Under most state law, courts can issue bench warrants for the arrest of anyone who does not appear for a court date after being ticked for a violation or given a summonses. As a result, too many individuals serve jail time for parking infractions or park code violations. Incarceration is not an appropriate response to the failure to pay a fine or appear in court for a minor or civil offense. Yet municipalities across the country use these fines, as well as the additional court fees and fines that pile up when people are unable to pay the original penalty, to supplement city and county budgets.

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The Department of Justice’s report on the Ferguson Police Department exposed the depth of the St. Louis County municipal court system and found “overwhelming evidence of minor municipal code violations resulting in multiple arrests, jail time, and payments that exceed the cost of the original ticket many times over.” However, this practice is not unique to St. Louis County. It is estimated that over one million people in NYC, for example, have outstanding bench warrants.

Warrants have crippling consequences for communities. An outstanding bench warrant makes it impossible for individuals to get jobs or housing that require a background check. The overuse of warrants also leaves many community members fearful and vulnerable in interactions with law enforcement, because they are under the constant risk of arrest and incarceration.

In Practice

Bench warrants are used throughout the country when someone misses a court date. The practice is especially devastating for low-income individuals who are unable to pay fines and has a disproportionate impact on Black and Brown people, who are often targeted by police. In recognition of the discriminatory and crippling impact of bench warrants, many community organizations support the adoption of a range of policies to mitigate the effect on community members. These policies include: allowing individuals to attain background checks even with an outstanding bench warrant, instituting regular times where people can appear in court so that individuals do not spend significant time in jail waiting to appear before a judge over a bench warrant, eliminating bench warrants all together and ensuring that individuals are not jailed multiple times for the same ticket or offense. A number of jurisdictions, from Baton Rouge to Atlanta, have offered amnesty for existing bench warrants. However, these amnesty programs have been limited in that they often require a one-time payment and do not address the underlying issues of criminalizing poverty and inappropriately using incarceration as a strategy for generating revenue.

In St. Louis, Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE), Arch City Defenders, the Organization for Black Struggle (OBS) and others have been involved in a multiple year campaign to end the abusive municipal court practices in St. Louis County. The campaign has included the publishing of reports about the practice, direct actions targeting city and court leadership and a public education strategy. The campaign in St. Louis aims to provide relief to people who have outstanding bench warrants and municipal ordinance violation tickets, and to prevent the issuance of future bench warrants by addressing the structural racism and profit motive of the St. Louis County municipal courts. In response to increasing pressure, St. Louis County cancelled more than 220,000 arrest warrants for those with moving violations and at the state level both chambers of the Missouri Legislature passed a revenue bill, which caps the amount of general operating revenue from traffic tickets a municipality can collect at 12.5 percent, down from 30 percent.

Best Practices:

Both city councils and municipal courts can lessen the devastating impact of bench warrants. City councils can make changes to the municipal code limiting the penalties for different municipal offenses and municipal courts can issue rules dictating how judges deal with cases.

  • Any amnesty on bench warrants should include an elimination of all outstanding fines and permanently cancel any warrants associated with those offenses. Additionally, any amnesty should pardon all pending cases and recall any warrants associated with those cases.
  • Municipalities should eliminate the “Failure to Appear” charge, which often is the municipal code violation that allows for bench warrants to be issued and results in unnecessary arrests.
  • Municipal courts should eliminate additional fees and fines for missed court appearances.
  • Municipalities should use less costly and more humane practices that have been proven to increase the likelihood that a defendant will appear in court—such as a reminder phone call or free transportation.
  • Municipal courts, municipalities, and states should provide alternatives to monetary payment for fines including community service and as suggested by advocates in St. Louis.
  • Municipalities or states should provide public defenders to indigent people who are facing charges in municipal court.
  • Fines should be determined based on the income of the person fined and never imposed on individuals who are not deemed legally financially responsible (such as minors, people with severe medical or physical disabilities, etc.)
  • States and city officials should end the practice of suspending people’s licenses for failure to pay minor traffic violation fines or child support.
  • Municipal courts should limit the violations that require court appearances to the extent possible under state law.
  • Municipalities and states should enforce a cap on the amount of municipal revenue that can be generated from traffic tickets and other offenses.
  • Municipal courts should be consolidated into regional courts to discourage the practice of using municipal courts to fund bankrupt municipalities.
  • A percentage of municipal court revenue should be reinvested in communities and community based programs.