Americans are over-legislated, a fact that partly explains why we incarcerate more people than any other country on the planet.
The reform movement, championed by President Obama, is meant to ameliorate the harsh federal penalties that are now inflicted on law-breakers. It would do so through a combination of sentencing-guideline reform and executive action.
Equally important to the discussion, however, is the question of how we should reform municipal courts. Indeed, municipal courts are the places where Americans are most likely to gain experience of the justice system. A national priority should be placed on making sure these courts function properly and that justice is meted out sensibly.
Unlike criminal courts – which can employ the threat of incarceration and prescribe probation in response to less-serious offenses such as substance abuse – municipal courts have little power to correct misconduct. Offenders too often view citations as being of little significance.
That view is bolstered by the fact that citations many times have a checked box that tells offenders that an appearance in court is not required. Default judgments happen regularly, bringing in tow consequences that are often unappreciated by defendants.
In big cities with large numbers of the poor, the municipal court system often adds yet another layer of difficulty to the lives of those who are struggling to get by. One large source of trouble is officers’ nearly unfettered ability to write citations with impunity.
When the poor receive a ticket for traffic infractions, they often lack the means of satisfying the judgment. As a result, many will elect not to appear in court.
Municipal court judges’ response will then often be to enter default judgments and impose fines. When those fines aren’t paid, defendants will see their licenses suspended.
Reinstatement will come only following the handing over of additional fees. The underlying judgment, usually set at an amount stated on the citation, must also be satisfied.
The question of reform should begin with a review of the cases in which individuals have defaulted. The prospect of seeking to have a judgment vacated or reopened can seem daunting to many defendants.
To make it less so, there should be no fee for reopening a judgment. The procedure, moreover, should be streamlined to require only a sheet of paper to be completed.
Second, because many defendants lack a means of satisfying a financial judgment, municipal courts should promptly tell all defendants of their option to turn to community service as a substitute. Community service, among its several advantages, can be done on the spot.
Agencies in need of help — food pantries, churches, animal shelters — can send representatives to court. There they can provide defendants with transportation, as well as information concerning the work that they are expected to complete.
Third, courts should periodically conduct their proceedings in community centers. The goal here would be to provide a more-convenient and less-intimidating option to defendants.
In small communities, such as Elm Grove, it is easy for residents to get to court. Finding transportation in Milwaukee, though, can be daunting. Especially for those who lack childcare, the best option can seem to be to simply stay put.
Finally, the purpose of a municipal court should never be to provide a steady source of revenue to a local government. When municipal courts exist to be income generators, the local police have an incentive to issue as many citations as possible.
To combat this tendency, municipal courts should be required to report the income they generate from law-breakers, as well as the cost of keeping themselves going. These accounts will let the public see whether a particular locality is collecting more than it should and is in fact profiting from the citations it issues.