A Missouri House member has vowed to make the city of Ferguson’s municipal court accountable after a blistering review from a state office.
A report from Auditor Nicole Galloway found the court had disorganized case files, had charged $26,000 in illegal fees and had personnel who were uncooperative and combative.
Democratic Representative Cora Faith Walker of Ferguson thinks the court must improve its operations before Galloway performs a follow-up audit later this year.
“It will be a very important time for the municipal courts in Ferguson to show that progress is being made in terms of improvements with the system and the folks are seriously committed to address some of these issues” said Walker.
Galloway’s report gave the Ferguson Municipal Court an overall performance designation of poor, the lowest rating available. Galloway indicated the court staff’s behavior was especially troubling.
“Considering the lack of cooperation my staff experienced in their official roles as representatives of my office, I can only imagine how average citizens are treated when they are trying to get information about their cases or resolution on serious issues.”
The audit found court records containing personal information such as social security numbers were stored in several places with no process in place to track the location of the records.
After records were discovered to have severe mold, the auditor’s office had to hire a mold remediation company to recover and preserve documents to complete the audit.
Uncovered within the $26,000 of illegal fees charged to citizens was the court’s practice of billing a $75 non-prosecution fee against anyone who made an initial report, but then did not go forward with charges.
Walker says her office is going to reach out to the community as well as city management and elected leaders to find out what assistance is needed to improve the court’s performance.
“Is it a matter of resources that need to be brought to bear?” said Walker. “Are there other municipal courts who are functioning better that can provide best practices, really trying to get to tangible improvements that can be implemented.”
Walker said there was no surprise from her constituents about the audit. “That really confirmed a lot of experiences that folks have had. I’ve heard from people that hope that the next time around there can be some improvement, even some small improvement in basic cooperation.”
The Ferguson City Council last year approved a proposal from the U.S. Justice Department meant to overhaul the city’s police department and municipal court system.
The Justice Department opened an investigation after the August 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown Junior by then-police officer Darren Wilson.
The Department determined in 2015 that the Ferguson Police Department had demonstrated a “pattern and practice” of discrimination against African-Americans, targeting them disproportionately for traffic stops, use of force and jail sentences.
Under an agreement known as a “consent decree” in which the city didn’t admit guilt, it accepted to changing its municipal code that authorized jail for people who fail to pay fines.
After the review from the auditor’s office, Walker said she won’t rule out changes to the municipal court’s top offices after improvements are made before a follow-up state review.
“In the long term, to figure out what sort of systemic management changes can be made to help people restore their trust in the system” said Walker.