The much-criticized municipal court in Ferguson, Missouri plans to withdraw thousands of arrest warrants and make changes to its pre-trial release program, the court’s new judge announced Monday.
Judge Donald McCullin’s order wipes clean all arrest warrants issued before Dec. 31, 2014 and eliminates cash bond for traffic violations, which previously kept many low-income defendants jailed on minor charges. Most of the cancelled warrants are for failure to appear in court or failure to pay fines. The defendants will be given new court dates for their underlying offenses and may be offered settlements of their cases, such as payment plans or community service. Fines may be lowered or scrapped for some defendants who can’t pay them.
"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,” said Judge McCullin in a statement.
Ferguson’s municipal court has faced national scrutiny since the August 2014 shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. In March, the Department of Justice issued a scathing report alleging the city was more concerned with raising revenue than meting out justice. It also found the system took a particularly heavy toll on poor and black defendants.
The year since Brown’s death has brought an overhaul in city leadership. Ferguson hired a new police chief and appointed Judge McCullin, who took the bench in June. McCullin’s court overhaul comes just days in advance of a new state law that caps the revenue Missouri courts can collect from traffic tickets. The new law, which goes into effect Friday, also bars courts from jailing people for failure to appear in court for a traffic violation.
Ferguson said its new court policies go a step further by eliminating cash bond and helping to reinstate drivers’ licenses suspended solely for failing to appear in court or pay a fine.
Even as the city wipes the existing slate clean, however, it said it may still use warrants as a tool “if a defendant continually fails to appear in court.”
Critics of Ferguson’s court applauded the announced changes, but some said they do not go far enough.
Thomas Harvey of Arch City Defenders, a nonprofit legal advocacy group that sued Ferguson for its court practices, said that while the withdrawal of warrants and other changes are a good first step, they are voluntary. Ferguson’s next judge, or the one after that, could simply reverse course.
“This court, this town, has shown a history of not doing the right thing,” said Harvey. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say -- why trust these people who created the system that we are now seeking to reform?”