Court Reform

The Court Reform topic looks at sentencing outcomes at both the municipal and state court levels.

Topic Score

Topic Score 39.75 Score is an average of this topic's indicator scores


The eight indicators in this topic quantify racial disparities in the court, and suggest ways we can make progress toward equitable outcomes. The indicator reports that follow will allow the City of St. Louis and all stakeholders to evaluate policies from a fact-based, verifiable perspective. We’ll be able to learn from the data, see what’s working and what’s falling short, and use these insights to double down on good investments and experiment with new policies.

The Court Reform topic looks at resident experiences of the court system and sentencing outcomes at both the municipal and state court levels.

Black residents are more likely than white residents to interact with the court system. Residents of majority-black census tracts are more likely than residents of majority-white census tracts to appear in landlord-tenant court and receive court-ordered evictions. At the St. Louis City Municipal Court, the majority of cases have black defendants. In addition, black children are much more likely to be referred to Juvenile Court than white children (See Child Well-being).

In partnership with the St. Louis City Municipal Court, we have taken a closer look at “driving while black,” or cases in which defendants are charged with driving status violations but not necessarily unsafe driving. Black drivers are much more likely than white drivers to be charged with driving status violations, which includes driving without valid or current registration, title, and/or insurance, or driving without a current driver’s license or license plate. 
Residents of majority-black zip codes are less likely than residents of majority-white zip codes to show up for their original court dates. The Municipal Court is more likely to issue warrants to residents of majority-black zip codes than residents of majority-white zip codes. The racial disparities we see here may contribute to the racial disparities in municipal arrests (See Policing).  

Black residents are less likely than white residents to have assistance in navigating the court. Black defendants are less likely to have retained legal counsel for cases heard in the Municipal Court. 

Lastly, black adults are overrepresented in the prison and probation populations compared to their share of the city’s population. Black adults are sentenced to incarceration by St. Louis Circuit Courts more often than white adults. Black adults are more than four times as likely as white adults to be serving probation.  

For the Equity Indicators Project, the measures chosen focus on racial disparities. For this topic, the indicators are reflective of the Ferguson Commission’s calls to action around court reform, but not all related calls to action are addressed within the scope of this project. 


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What is our equity score for this topic?


The higher the score on a scale from 1 to 100, the closer we are toward achieving equity. 

Which Calls to Action from the Forward Through Ferguson report are reflected in this topic?

Overall, this topic reflects an early effort to respond to Forward Through Ferguson’s call for transparency and efficiency in municipal courts. Specific calls to action addressed in this report include:

  • Utilizing Community-Based Alternatives to Traditional Sentencing by establishing alternative sentencing options, providing municipal court support services, and creating community justice centers for individuals charged with traffic violations and other types of violations who are unable to pay or otherwise in need.
  • Redefining Courts' Response to Nonviolent Offenses by collecting municipal court debts like civil debts and treating nonviolent offenses as civil violations. For court debts, they recommended assessing defendant ability to pay at nonpayment hearings, considering payment plans, and fine revocation. For convictions, they recommended eliminating incarceration for minor offenses and expunging old convictions for non-repeat offenders. For warrants, they recommended scheduling regular warrant reviews, developing a new process to review and cancel outstanding warrants, and canceling "failure to appear" warrants.
  • Increasing Awareness of Rights and Procedures by creating a Municipal Court "Bill of Rights," having open municipal court sessions, communicating rights to defendants in person (such as their right to counsel), and providing them with clear written notice of court hearing details. 
  • Protecting Rights and Effectively Administering Courts by training municipal court, jail, and city government employees in constitutional rights.
  • Strengthening Anti-Bias and Cultural Competency by including new approaches in anti-bias training for police and prohibiting profiling and discrimination.

What institutions and organizations were assessed?

The institutions assessed in this topic include the 22nd Circuit Court and the St. Louis City Municipal Court. 

Where did the data come from?

The data used in this topic comes from the St. Louis City Municipal Court, the City of St. Louis Department of Corrections, the Missouri Department of Corrections, and The Eviction Lab at Princeton University. Special thanks go to Dr. Lee Slocum and Dr. Beth Huebner at University of Missouri-St. Louis for preliminary data work on the Driving Status Violation indicators. 

What stakeholders were consulted?

The stakeholders consulted include the St. Louis City Municipal Court, the 22nd Circuit Court, Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing Opportunity Council (EHOC), ArchCity Defenders, and The Bail Project.

What metrics are missing and why?

There are many opportunities in the judicial process for individuals to make discretionary decisions that have effects on the experiences and outcomes of residents. Gathering data on each of these points of discretion is challenging. Given the time limitations of this particular project, we primarily focused our efforts on unearthing data on courts under city jurisdiction, that is, the St. Louis City Municipal Court. 

Ideally, this work will be expanded to include all points of discretion in the judicial process, including case acceptance for prosecution, case dismissals, plea bargaining, and sentencing outcomes. Prosecutors in particular have a great deal of discretion in filing or modifying charges against defendants. In 2012, the Vera Institute conducted a review of all "empirical studies on the relationship of race and ethnicity to prosecutorial decision making published between 1990 and 2011."

Future topics of research should include the length of time to trial, sentence length, fines and fees, cash bail, and legal representation rate for cases heard in the Circuit Court. 

Court Reform Equity Indicators

Number Indicator Equity Score
1 CR1: Municipal Warrants
The Municipal Court issues municipal warrants to residents of majority-black zipcodes four times more often than residents of majority-white zipcodes.
2 CR2: Pretrial Detention
Black residents are held in pretrial detention three times as often as white residents.
3 CR3: Incarceration
Black adults are four times as likely to be sentenced to incarceration than white adults. 
4 CR4: Probation
Black adults are four times as likely as white adults to be serving probation. 
5 CR5: Legal Representation
White defendants have legal representation in Municipal Court twice as often as black defendants.
6 CR6: Evictions
Eviction is twice as prevalent among renters in majority-black census tracts than among renters in majority-white census tracts. 
7 CR7: Driving Status Violation Charges
Black drivers are four times as likely as white drivers to be charged with violating regulations around driving status.
8 CR8: Driving Status Violation Convictions
The Municipal Court is equally likely to find black and white defendants guilty of violating regulations around driving status.
  2018 Equity Score 39.75


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