St. Louis County's municipal courts are part of an automated, money-hungry system that directly feeds municipalities and lawyers who can make deals, reports the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. At the top of the food chain are people with connections. Those in power hand out favors and use the state's point system for drivers as leverage. People who can afford lawyers can get serious cases amended to minor infractions. People who can't afford lawyers are stuck with answering to the original charge, and sometimes end up in jail if they miss court appearances because they cannot pay. A blistering U.S. Justice Department report on March 4 called Ferguson's police department a collection agency for a “constitutionally deficient” court. The report said city officials dismissed tickets for friends and family while blaming African-Americans' lack of “personal responsibility” for their woes in court.
A Post-Dispatch investigation found that the court system has become divorced from public safety. Missouri set up a point system in 1961 to flag the licenses of dangerous drivers. Cities use the system as currency, converting license points to cash by amending almost any kind of ticket to a non-moving violation. Municipal courts are streamlined to direct business to lawyers. A direct-marketing firm gets bulk ticket data and generates letters to defendants on behalf of lawyers seeking clients. While people with lawyers are usually guaranteed to get deals, people representing themselves generally can't. Much of the system is secret. Prosecutors and judges, many of them defense lawyers working part time at night, are free to dismiss cases without explanation. Most “hearings” are whispered meetings at the judge's bench between attorneys.