The Kansas City Star, July 8

‘There’s no punishment for not showing up to court’: How Missouri defendants get off easy

A recent Friday morning in the courtroom of presiding Independence Municipal Judge Garry Helm demonstrates as conclusively as anything why Missouri’s sweeping 2015 judicial reforms went too far.

On the 10 a.m. docket that day were 368 cases. In the audience were - count ‘em - seven defendants.

Helm had predicted the paltry turnout even before he walked into court that morning. No-shows dominate life in municipal courts these days. New state laws, enacted as a result of the Ferguson uprising, stipulate that Helm can’t fine a defendant for missing court for minor traffic violations such as driving without a license. He can’t get them tossed in jail. And he can’t suspend their licenses.

So the word is out: There’s no reason to show up for court. And drivers who lack licenses or insurance continue to roam the streets.

“It’s just really sad,” Helm said. “They’ve taken the teeth out of municipal courts.”

“They” is the Missouri General Assembly, which meant well when it passed a series of laws that then-Gov. Jay Nixon called the most comprehensive municipal court reform bill in state history. They acted after a Justice Department investigation documented enormous problems in east Missouri towns like Ferguson, which essentially ticketed African Americans as a way to to generate enough revenue to operate their cities.

The report concluded that officials in those municipalities viewed African Americans “less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.” The oppressive brand of law enforcement in those towns amounted to an ongoing abuse of power....

Then-state Sen. Eric Schmitt, who’s now the state treasurer and was the bill’s primary sponsor, said at the time the legislation was intended to address a “breakdown of trust” between people, the government and the court system. The old laws had treated citizens like ATMs. “Healing that,” he said, “is something worth fighting for.”He was right. That those issues needed to be addressed was obvious. The problem? Lawmakers lumped every city in the state in with the bad actors in the St. Louis suburbs. The result was a vast overreach that created problems where none had existed before, which is exactly what Kansas City Mayor Sly James predicted before Nixon signed one of the bills.Said state Rep. DaRon McGee, a Kansas City Democrat, “We’re making Ferguson’s problems Kansas City’s problems.”Among the changes was a lowering of maximum fines to $225 from what used to be $500. The result? Combined with a ban on late fees and warrant fees, revenue flowing into city coffers has dropped dramatically. Add to that some other expenses associated with the news laws, which included software and personnel requirements, and the result has been the shuttering of small municipal courts and police departments all over western Missouri.They simply couldn’t afford to remain open.Among the affected towns

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