A Washington University Professor of Law believes one piece of legislation tied to Ferguson that became law this year didn’t go far enough in reforming municipal courts. That law went into effect August 15.
When Governor Jay Nixon (D) signed Senate Bill 5 into law he described it as having, “real teeth,” and said it would return those courts to their intended purpose, but Washington University Professor May Quinn criticizes it as not being the fundamental, game-changing reform it was billed to be.
Particularly, she thinks it didn’t address issues that come from juveniles in those courts.
“Kids at age 17 across Missouri may be automatically filed both into our circuit court system and into our municipal courts, but you also have kids as young as 16 and 15 in the municipal courts,” said Quinn.
Quinn said there is no requirement that a juvenile have an attorney in municipal court.
“As a matter of practice, frequently you have children negotiating these systems on their own and entering into guilty pleas without necessarily understanding all that they are undertaking and the impacts that those cases may have on their lives,” said Quinn.
The bill’s sponsor, Senator Eric Schmitt (R-Glendale), defended the bill as having been comprehensive.
“I’m very proud of the fact that Senate Bill 5 is a very exhaustive, significant reform that deals with structural, underlying issues that have broken down trust between people and their government,” said Schmitt.
Schmitt said there will always be critics, and there will always be more issues to address.
“There was a report – the Department of Justice issued a report that dealt with St. Louis County juvenile courts that we’ll take a look at and listen, and if there are issues I would encourage … her to engage in the process if she thinks there are additional issues,” said Schmitt. “I will, as many of my colleagues do, take every opportunity to look at the facts and if the facts warrant reform we would certainly look at that. That’s how [the process of passing SB 5] got started.”
Quinn said there are signs that a legislative effort at reform could occur.
“Heartening news out of the Ferguson Commission that through conversations and various working groups, the raise the age issue has been talked about, albeit indirectly, and there is some good language being considered from the various working groups that would provide some counsel for kids,” said Quinn. “The devil, of course, is in the details.”
She said the recent finding of the Justice Department that St. Louis County’s family court system is in need of reform to eliminate bias is an opportunity to take on more of these issues.