Five years ago last weekend, the events surrounding Ferguson burst onto our streets and into the public consciousness. Much has been said and written about it, but the actions taken in the aftermath have brought real, concrete reform to municipal governments and courts here in Missouri. As we continue to evolve as a community, and work to develop and improve positive relationships with law enforcement and all citizens of our state, no matter their race, creed or zip code, it is important to take time to reflect and continue to challenge ourselves to be better.
The sweeping reforms enacted in 2015 and 2016 can and should stand as a national model to reign in the practice of taxation by citation — a practice that weaponized municipal courts to fund bloated budgets by treating citizens as nothing more than ATMs.
In the wake of Ferguson, a truth was exposed: there were simply too many municipalities relying on traffic tickets and other fines and fees to fund their budgets. In and around Ferguson, some cities were generating 30%, 40%, and even 50% of their revenue from traffic tickets and fines alone. Moreover, people were being thrown in jail for weeks at a time for municipal infractions. Although supposedly illegal in the United States, de-facto “debtors’ prisons” were alive and well. What is more, some cities were trying to drum up revenue by citing people for ridiculous things such as mismatched blinds and drapes.
What became clear to me back then, as a state senator from St. Louis County and someone who grew up near Ferguson, was that there had been a breakdown of trust between people and their government and courts.
I decided that something needed to be done — our core notions of justice and important institutions of our republic were at stake. From that awareness came the most sweeping municipal reform in the history of Missouri: Senate Bill 5.
An unusual coalition spanning the political spectrum came together, including law enforcers who said that they didn’t go to the police academy to write traffic tickets all day long but would rather spend time building relationships with the people in the communities they served. We enacted a series of reforms that included caps on how much a municipality could receive from traffic tickets and fines, limits on the amount that could be charged per ticket, and assurances that someone arrested could see a judge within 48 hours. Additionally, real consequences for violating the law were put in place, such as letting voters ultimately decide if a city in violation could continue to be a city at all.
Five years later, the positive results are undeniable. Revenues extracted from the pockets of Missourians from traffic tickets, fines and fees are down nearly 64% in St. Louis County alone and nearly 45% statewide. We are making progress toward our citizens being treated with more respect in our courts. Citizens aren’t being thrown in jail for unpaid traffic tickets. Municipalities are more accountable to their citizens. And, some cities have merged or are now sharing services, saving taxpayer dollars.
Today, I have a new role as Missouri’s attorney general. An important duty of my office is to enforce the laws of our state, including these important reforms. Recently a whistleblower came forward regarding a traffic ticket quota scheme in a southwest Missouri town. We took action and we shut it down. We also recently launched an investigation into a major Missouri university that appeared to be directing campus officers to meet ticket quota guidelines in an effort to raise money for that department and the school. And, when we hear of additional cases, we will take action to protect Missourians from the overreach of government and institutions into the lives of our citizens.
As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long. But it bends toward justice.” Here in Missouri, we have taken those words to heart and are leading the way toward solutions by taking on the municipal profiteering that was taking place in many Missouri municipalities, providing a road map for reform and ending the practice of taxation by citation.
Eric Schmitt, a Republican, is the Missouri attorney general.
What do you think has changed (or needs to change)?
We will publish some of the responses we recieve.