More than two years since the unrest after shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, much has changed in the municipal courts of St. Louis County, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. Lines of people on court nights no longer snake outside the courts and down the block. Municipal jails, once typically filled with city court fugitives, are almost empty. The few people booked are typically released within hours and often without having to post bail. After the Post-Dispatch exposed a culture of secrecy in the municipal court system and and highlighted the difficulty obtaining information on individual cases, the municipal courts have put basic case information online.
The city of Jennings agreed to pay $4.7 million to up to 2,000 people who were held in its jail for failure to pay court fines. Why so few people in court? Part of it is due to amnesty programs that went into effect after the unrest in 2014 and 2015, which forgave at least 100,000 municipal court cases. At least temporarily, cities dramatically backed off enforcement of traffic and ordinance violations. A year ago, the Post-Dispatch detailed a massive drop in the number of cases filed in the first half of 2015. State court administrators said they had a staffing shortage and did not have 2016 data. Several municipal court judges, prosecutors and clerks said there was another reason court nights are so light. They say defendants view the courts as being defanged. They don’t believe there is any consequence to skipping court. So they aren’t coming, and the number of outstanding cases is building up again.