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 , a partnership between Rise, St. Louis County, Globalhack, and LaunchCode, has gotten an in-depth look at the difficulties residents face in accessing this data about complaints against them, and is developing practical tools to bridge the information gap.
Here in St. Louis County, the challenges which have plagued our communities came to light after the north County municipality Ferguson received national attention at the hand of 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 put in place a way we could 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.
To get a better understanding of how to make this work, we went to the people. 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 relating to 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. Some of this information is already accessible through CaseNet, an automated case management portal, but that system is not widely known or utilized.
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 to the local governments themselves. To complicate matters, six vendors process data for 81 municipal courts in St. Louis County.
Our new human-centered website and text tool, YourSTLCourts, 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, who have agreed to allow us to pilot the program with them. 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.
The way it works is that users have two options for interfacing with this tool, either via an online interface viewed in their web browser, or using a text-message system interface.
For the web interface, users will access the tool online and begin their process of either searching for ticket information about their person, or by finding information about a court they need to attend. When looking for ticket information, they have the option of inputting a ticket number, user information, or using a an online geography tool to find out what municipality they got a ticket in if they are unsure. At this point, they are able to get information about their outstanding tickets, as well as any information related to active arrest warrants currently affecting them.
Using the text-message interface, 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 region 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 region.
The Civic Tech and Data Collaborative harnesses the power of technology and data to make local governments and civic organizations more effective in meeting the pressing challenges of the 21st century. Led by three national organizations – Code for America, Living Cities, and the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership – the Collaborative is a two-year project that provides grants and technical assistance to seven urban communities around the country to improve civic tech and data ecosystems. We believe that technology can be a force for the public good, and that institutions and sectors can collaborate and involve local residents in the design of technology solutions that address challenges faced by low-income people. The Civic Tech and Data Collaborative is active in Boston, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, San Antonio, Seattle/King County, St. Louis, and Washington D.C. Funding for this collaborative was made possible with support and partnership from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.