After Ferguson, Civic Tech Collaborative Helps Residents Navigate Convoluted Criminal Justice System

FILE - In this July, ... ]

FILE - In this July, ... ] Jeff Roberson / AP Photo


Connecting state and local government leaders

In St. Louis County, residents—and black residents in particular—often find themselves drowning in questionable fines and fees. Enter YourSTLCourts.

The first thing users see when they visit YourSTLCourts is the slogan “Your Ticket. Your Rights. Right at your Fingertips,” meant to reassure St. Louis County residents who might shirk their fine or their court date.

Such an inclination is understandable given the U.S. Department of Justice last year found the criminal justice system in Ferguson, a city in the county, racially biased and focused on revenue generation in part through problematic court procedures.

With more than 80 courts across 69 cities, many of which abut each other, it’s easy for St. Louis County residents to confuse which court they’re supposed at, and there was no easy way to look that information up prior to the site’s launch on May 1.

“We’ve seen a positive shift there,” said Laura Kinsell-Baer, cofounder of CivTech St. Louis. “People feel much more fairly treated by the courts than they did a couple years ago.”

While it’s too soon to quantify the progress being made, data concerning the impacts of the project are being monitored in terms of the number of arrest warrants issued for unpaid tickets and differential treatment of cases.

CivTech St. Louis was borne out of a Code for America fellowship in St. Louis County focused on business permitting, which Kinsell-Baer was fundraising for as a government employee.

Then racial unrest in Ferguson happened, and the project shifted its focus to municipal courts.

Kinsell-Baer also served as coordinator for Living CitiesCivic Tech and Data Collaborative in St. Louis County, which allocated grant funding and technical assistance for YourSTLCourts.

Making a better courts website involved merging the St. Louis tech scene with the more traditional levels of government, Kinsell-Baer said. Actual judges judged a weekend civic hackathon to build a prototype, having never been exposed to tech development before.

YourSTLCourts includes a text reminder system users can customize to alert them when they’re supposed to be in court, reducing warrants issued for failure to appear.

Sometimes people avoid going to court for fear of a high fine they can’t afford or arrest, and in some cases people find themselves with tickets across several jurisdictions because their commute spans multiple closeby municipalities.

Thousands of non-violent offenders, often low income, found themselves trapped in a downward spiral of compounding fines, suspended driver’s licenses and arrests in St. Louis County’s municipal court systems, which rarely offered community service. In that situation, high failure to appear rates make sense.

The human-centered, web-based portal helps users find case data by citation or driver’s license number and, absent those, people who can find generally where they were arrested on a map can figure out the municipality they received a ticket in and contact the court clerk.

“It tells people what to do if they have an outstanding warrant, their options in court, how to get community service and also if they’re able to pay their ticket online,” Kinsell-Baer said. “It’s about educating people how to navigate the system.”

In Ferguson’s aftermath, judges want to work with people, she added.

YourSTLCourts serves as a private conduit of public data to protect peoples’ privacy, and the digital infrastructure is scalable. Six data management vendors serve the county’s courts, but they all feed and share that information into the portal

“We actually have the most governmental jurisdictions feeding into one portal in the country,” Kinsell-Baer said.

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

NEXT STORY: Watch Out for Unclaimed Property Scams, State Officials Warn