Thank the protesters in Ferguson, Mo.
Give a nod to those often-maligned protesters for the new system of allowing people to pay municipal court fines in installments.
One of the pertinent issues raised by Ferguson’s critics was the outlandish unfairness of that city’s court system. The U.S. Justice Department determined that Ferguson used its police to pad the city budget by encouraging, even ordering, them to write as many citations as possible against residents. The abusive practice was bolstered by a court system that added fees and fines at every turn.
The backlash is believed to have influenced the Missouri Supreme Court’s decision in December to issue new rules for payment plans, lessening the likelihood of a person being jailed for failure to pay. Those changes, set to begin July 1, then influenced a long-running conversation in Kansas City’s municipal courts.
Judges here already allowed people to make arrangements to pay. But the court long recognized that the practice was inconsistently applied. That’s the polite way of saying it was unfair.
Nothing was standardized. There was no way to alert people that this option existed. Some judges wanted a person to appear in person before them to make arrangements. Others did not, according to a spokeswoman. Friday, all of that changes.
Cashiers are being trained in the new procedures this week. Municipal Court Administrator Megan Pfannenstiel will outline the new protocols next week for the local bar association.
A person can be granted 30 days to pay up to $100 in fines, 60 days for $300, 90 days for $500, six months for up to $1,000, nine months up to $1,500 and up to one year to pay off $2,000. Amounts over that will be reviewed and a payment plan decided by the court’s finance manager.
Don’t think this will absolve people of the risk of a bench warrant. It’s often misstated (and misreported) that someone was issued a warrant because of an unpaid ticket. A more accurate statement would be that the arrest warrant was issued because the person failed to respond to the court’s summons to appear. People still have to show up.
But even that might be less painful in the future. Officials are also looking into a kiosk system to expedite the business of the courts. It would work similar to how people check in, print boarding passes and do other confirmations by themselves at airports.
All of this is to make a day in municipal court more efficient. That’s fair.