JEFFERSON CITY • In 2015, sweeping reform of municipal courts was signed into law. Now, a state senator wants to start a discussion about overturning those reforms.
"We had a problem in St. Louis," said Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield. "We created new ones."
After the August 2014 protests in Ferguson, former Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, championed legislation that sought to restore trust between citizens and the cities and court systems they interacted with. Among other things, it limited the percentage of city revenue that could come from fines, banned failure to appear charges for missing court dates and prohibited jailing for most minor traffic fines.
As is, Dixon's Senate Bill 553 would repeal the latter two provisions, bringing back failure to appear charges and allowing people to be jailed for failing to pay "minor traffic violation or municipal ordinance violation" fines.
He said he's heard from mayors across the state that the 2015 law has negatively affected their cities.
"It has removed the ability for municipalities to enforce their ordinances," Dixon said. "We need a different solution."
Dixon stressed that his intention in filing the bill was to start a conversation about solutions for these cities. The bill that passes will look different from his proposal, he predicted.
"It's the beginning of a discussion," he said.
After his bill passed in 2015, Schmitt, now the state's treasurer, said people have the right "not to be thrown in jail because you’re a couple of weeks late on a fine for having a taillight out."
In a statement, Schmitt's spokesman, Garrett Poorman, said the treasurer would stay abreast of proposals affecting municipal courts.
"The treasurer will be keeping a close eye on any and all legislation relating to municipal court reform as the 2018 session develops," he said.
Not in Dixon's proposal: removing the cap on revenue from court fines. The 2015 bill mandated that, starting in 2016, all cities and counties needed to make less than 20 percent of their operating revenue from such fines.
That provision has taken away a major source of revenue for some cities, Dixon said.
Dixon said that he supported the 2015 bill but that it probably shouldn't have been applied to everywhere.
"We need to realize one size doesn't fit all," Dixon said. "What works in St. Louis won't work in Battlefield," a city of about 6,000 near Springfield.
Debra Hickey, the mayor of Battlefield since 2014, said her city doesn't rely on its municipal court for revenue, but the money from fines did help cover the costs of the operating the court. In 2015, the court generated about $35,000. In 2017, it was about $25,000. Each year court expenses have been about $51,000, according to numbers Hickey provided.
Also, since the 2015 reforms, the municipal court has lacked the authority to compel compliance with judgments, she said. Currently, the city has about 150 outstanding warrants, she said.
"The courts have a lot of bark but not a lot of bite," she said.
Asked if he worried that the circumstances the 2015 reforms sought to change would return if the proposal became law, Dixon said he didn't think that would be a problem.
"I think they've gotten the message," he said.
On Monday, the bill was referred to a committee, and Dixon said he expects a hearing to happen in the next couple of weeks.
EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story had incorrect information on the location of Battlefield and the year Hickey became mayor.