Ferguson judge announces sweeping court reforms: Will they restore justice?

The new municipal judge says he is making the changes to restore confidence in the system and ease the burden on poor defendants. 

Jeff Roberson/AP
Police and protesters square off outside the Ferguson Police Department, in Ferguson, Mo., March 11. Ferguson's new municipal judge Donald McCullin ordered massive changes Monday in the city's much-criticized municipal court.

Ferguson’s new municipal court judge has announced sweeping reforms to the city's municipal court, following a scathing report that found the city had been charging its African-American residents escalating fines for minor offenses and placing them in jail if they were unable to pay.

Judge Donald McCullin issued an order to withdraw all arrest warrants issued before December 31, 2014 and an order changing the conditions for pre-trial release from police custody. 

In the new changes, defendants will be given new court dates and, rather than jail people for failure to pay fines, the court will provide alternative payment plans, commute fines for needy persons, or require community service.

"These changes should continue the process of restoring confidence in the court, alleviating fears of the consequences of appearing in court, and giving many residents a fresh start," Judge McCullin said in a statement. "Many individuals whose license has been suspended will be able to obtain them and take advantage of the benefits of being able to drive. Moreover, defendants will not be disadvantaged in being afforded pretrial release because of the inability to make bond." 

According to McCullin‘s plan, if an arrest warrant is issued for a minor traffic violation, the defendant will not be incarcerated, but instead released on their own recognizance and given another court date.

The previous municipal judge resigned in March after a US Justice Department report said Ferguson’s municipal court system worked together with the police force to exploit people in order to raise revenue. The report also cited that Ferguson police targeted blacks who make up about two-thirds of the city's 21,000 residents.

“Court-related revenues were the second largest source of city income, accounting for $2.6 million of the $20 million in total revenue, the report found. And in 2013, Ferguson issued almost 33,000 arrest warrants, more than one per resident, for unpaid fines for minor violations – though many were issued for non-residents,” The Christian Science Monitor reported following release of the report. 

The Justice Department launched its investigation into Ferguson's police department and municipal court following nationwide protests sparked by the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson.

McCullin's plan of reform "is meaningful and will have a real impact on the lives of many,"  St. Louis-area lawyer Brendan Roediger told Reuters. "That being said, payment plans and community service do not solve racial profiling or excessive fines.”

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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