The Slatest

Missouri Legislature Votes to Reform Exploitative Municipal Fine System

St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, left, with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon. Nixon has expressed support for the type of reform passed by the legislature but has not said whether he will sign this specific bill.

Jim Young/Reuters

When Michael Brown’s August 2014 death in Missouri was followed by chaotic protests, a number of writers investigating the broader causes of local discontent—most notably the Washington Post’s Radley Balko—concluded that one major source of distrust between police and community members was St. Louis County’s overbearing, abusive system of municipal fines. Thousands of the area’s predominately black residents were—and are—stuck with compounding fines and warrants originating from minor infractions they may not have even committed in the first place. A Department of Justice investigation of Ferguson came to the same conclusions as writers like Balko, observing that “maximizing revenue” seemed to be more of a goal for the Ferguson PD than protecting citizens. (Prosecutors and judges in particular make out quite well in the area.)

On Thursday the Missouri state legislature passed, with bipartisan support, a bill that seeks to reform the much-criticized system by capping the revenue that can be raised from municipal fines. From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

If Gov. Jay Nixon signs the bill, people could be fined no more than $300 for minor traffic offenses. Cities couldn’t pile on extra “failure to appear” charges because an offender missed a court date. And in most cases, traffic offenders couldn’t be jailed for failing to pay fines.

Cities that use municipal courts as revenue generators would have to look elsewhere. Fines and fees from minor violations could furnish no more than 12.5 percent of the general operating revenue for municipalities in St. Louis County and 20 percent in the rest of the state.

The bill passed Missouri’s state House by a 134–25 vote and its Senate by a 31–3 vote. Nixon is expected to sign the measure into law.