Dealing with the court system can be stressful and difficult for anyone. For people in St. Louis County, keeping track of court dates, fine amounts and payments is a labyrinthine process at best, deliberately opaque at worst. However, the experience in St. Louis County is not unique. It echoes the national conversation on citizens’ interactions with the judicial system. The St. Louis Civic Tech and Data Collaborative (CivTech St. Louis)—supported in part by the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge—is a partnership between Rise, St. Louis County, Globalhack, and LaunchCode. We’ve gotten an in-depth look at the difficulties residents face in accessing this data about complaints against them, and are developing practical tools to bridge the information gap.
Here in St. Louis County, these challenges came to light after neighboring municipality Ferguson received national attention for civil unrest and a decades-long conflict between residents and law enforcement. The Ferguson Commission, through their reports and on-going efforts to work within the community, have sought to implement ways to tackle many of these issues. The Civic Tech and Data Collaborative has focused its efforts on a single issue: the jailing of people who have committed non-violent traffic offenses. The current law takes people from a simple traffic stop into a downward spiral of warrants, fear, and fines with limited information available publicly to help.
With the generous in-kind help of social work students at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, CivTech STL surveyed residents and court clerks and determined that one of the biggest issues with court-resident relationships was confusion. Citizens were not being given understandable, clear information about court procedures, their rights in the courtroom, and—critically—how to track court dates and ticket fine amounts. If a citizen loses track of a ticket or isn’t sure where to pay it in the county’s sprawling municipal court system, they could be subject to compounding fines, loss of their driver’s license, or arrest.
When imagining a new, user-friendly system, we’ve found several key pieces of information that individuals need: ticket amount, options for them to resolve the ticket, possible warrants, and associated court dates. By engaging with the technology staff and court clerks, CivTech STL team learned that these data are kept by courts and by the vendors who process that data, but are not easily accessible—six vendors process data for 81 municipal courts in St. Louis County.
Our new human-centered website and text tool, YourSTL Courts, means that individuals can easily access information about their outstanding tickets and avoid having a simple ticket escalate to more serious consequences. While we are starting with data from the St. Louis County courts, the system is ready to accept data from multiple jurisdictions in the future, so individuals won’t have to hunt among multiple websites if they don’t know which jurisdiction issued the citation.
Users have two options for interfacing with this tool—online or by text message. Online, users can search for ticket information, or find information about a court they need to attend. They can input a ticket number or user information, or they can use an online geography tool to find out what municipality they got a ticket in. At this point, they can get information about their outstanding tickets, plus information related to active arrest warrants currently affecting them.
Via text-message the process is similar, but with a more simple process. Text message reminders are also available for those who opt to use this system.
This project will bring an improved experience to the municipal courts system of St. Louis County. By modeling the payoff from collaborative problem-solving, the work of CivTech STL can also open the door to more sharing of criminal justice data for broader analysis in ways that protect individuals’ privacy. Good information would assist the community in tackling the difficult questions about the overall pattern of warrants and differential treatment for people of color.
The St. Louis Civic Tech and Data Collaborative demonstrates how mobilizing talent across sectors can use data and technology in fresh ways to improve public systems. We hope our county can leverage the lessons and new relationships from this project to examine how data and tech can help us address the many other challenges that face our county.
The Civic Tech and Data Collaborative is a partnership of Code for America (CfA), Living Cities, and the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership and is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The national organizations are working with seven communities around the country to understand how to harness the power of data and technology to increase efficiency, equity, and effectiveness in order to benefit the most vulnerable residents in our urban communities.
An earlier version of this blog post was posted on Living Cities.