Jennings, Missouri sees changes after court debt lawsuit settlement

Lawsuit

JENNINGS, Mo. (AP) — The city of Jennings is making changes to its municipal courts to keep people out of jail for court debts stemming from minor infractions.

The city agreed this year to pay $4.7 million in a class-action civil rights lawsuit filed by the nonprofit law group ArchCity Defenders, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (http://j.mp/2fG4viw ) reported.

The city is now sending cases with uncollected court debt to collection agencies rather than arresting people.

“Some people always step up and take the responsibility and pay,” Jennings municipal court clerk John Adams said. “Other people, you always had to prod them along a little, and courts did that with warrants.”

Adams said he thinks the new system will be better and repair the relationship between the community and the court.

People whose original infractions were traffic tickets or ordinance violations were being held in custody due to their inability to pay court-related fines and fees. Critics said the court system criminalized poverty.

The Missouri Supreme Court has added a set of minimum standards for municipal courts after a working group was assigned to study court problems. Municipal courts are now required to have a judge on duty at all times to rule on bail and warrants, as well as to offer alternative sentences for people who cannot afford to pay fines.

Courts must also at least be pursuing court automation to let people make payments online and have free online access to information about pending cases, outstanding warrants, and scheduled dockets.