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Municipal courts’ warrants target African-Americans, expert says

ST. LOUIS – It’s one thing to suspect that St. Louis municipal courts target African-Americans when they issue warrants. It’s a different story when cold numbers prove the case.

Numbers, for instance, that show that municipal courts issue warrants four times more often in majority-black ZIP codes in the city than in majority-white ZIP codes. Or that the city’s municipal courts issue 94 warrants per 1,000 people, compared with 15 per 1,000 in New York City.

That’s one of numerous statistics in the “Equity Indicators: Toward a St. Louis Region That Works for Us All.” Funded by various nonprofit groups in cooperation with the Ferguson Commission, the 2018 report used a large number of comparative statistics to develop “equity indicators” for the city.

Cristina Garmendia, who was the equity indicators project manager for the effort, focused on the municipal courts’ statistics of that report in a speech to the Board of Aldermen’s Legislation Committee on Monday.

“We are issuing a lot more warrants than perhaps we should be,” Garmendia said in a report on equity-informed policy. “Minor charges can be turned into major inconveniences.”

Focusing much of her attention on warrants, Garmendia noted that one of the purposes of the aldermanic legislation committee was to suggest improvements in the municipal courts.

“You have the power to reduce racial disparities in St. Louis,” Garmendia said.

A court issues a warrant when a defendant doesn’t show up for two or more court dates or doesn’t pay outstanding fines and fees for municipal ordinance violations.

Police must arrest these defendants when they encounter them. They are put into custody until they can go before a judge, who will give them a new court date and release them.

A person can be held up to two days on a minor traffic violation and three days before he or she can see a judge.

Garmendia noted that the Ferguson Commission recommended that “failure to appear” warrants be canceled and that defendants should be provided with support services. She said that New York City got better results when it redesigned its summons forms and texted defendants about upcoming court appearances.

Garmendia also spoke about other racial disparities. The greatest disparity has to do with asthma, she said, and after that comes the high rate of sexually transmitted diseases.

In St. Louis, the largest number of people are affected by racial segregation, concentrated poverty, adult poverty and lack of health insurance.

In discussion about the report, 17th Ward Alderman Joseph Roddy said he suspected that some of the difference between the number of warrants in New York City and St. Louis was because St. Louis is poorer. Also, there are fewer cars and single-family houses in New York City relative to its population. Owners of cars and single-family homes can be charged with violations.

Twenty-second Ward Alderman Jeffrey Boyd said, “I can be poor, but that’s no excuse for me disobeying the law.” And, he asked, “should I feel sorry for somebody who’s pulled over because their temp tag is bad?”

Twenty-third Ward Alderman Joseph Vaccaro said the city might want to look into a night court or a Saturday court.

“We have a system for those with means and those without means,” 24th Ward Alderman Bret Narayan said.

Jim Merkel

southsidemerkel@gmail.com Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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