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New Ferguson Judge Overhauls Municipal Courts

Five months after the U.S. Justice Department said the city of Ferguson, Mo., unfairly used its courts to raise money, a new municipal judge ordered that all arrest warrants made before Dec. 31, 2014, be withdrawn.

Judge Donald McCullin was appointed in June to replace Judge Ronald Brockmeyer, who resigned after the publication of the critical Justice Department report. McCullin also ordered that defendants receive new court dates and alternative options for resolving their cases, such as paying a fine or performing community service, according to Reuters. If a defendant can't afford the fine it could be commuted altogether.

In its report, the Justice Department determined that the city's police force and court system collaborated to exploit citizens for revenue, Reuters reports.

"The Justice Department specifically said Ferguson's municipal court practices caused significant harm to many people with cases pending as minor municipal code violations turned into multiple arrests, jail time, and payments that exceeded the cost of the original ticket many times over.

"McCullin, who is black, ordered instead that if an arrest warrant is issued for a minor traffic violation, the defendant will not be incarcerated, but will be released on their own recognizance and given another court date, the city said.

"'These changes should continue the process of restoring confidence in the Court... and giving many residents a fresh start,' said McCullin in a statement.

"He added that many people who have had drivers licenses suspended will be able to obtain them and start driving again. In the past, the city's director of revenue would suspend a defendant's driver's license solely for failing to appear in court or failing to pay a fine."

These policies disproportionately affected African-Americans in Ferguson, as NPR's Robert Siegel reported in March, after the release of the Justice Department report:

"Although African-Americans make up only 67 percent of Ferguson's population, they accounted for 85 percent of vehicle stops, 90 percent of citations and 93 percent of arrests by Ferguson police within a two-year period. Also 90 percent of documented force by police was against African-Americans."

The Justice Department began its investigation into the Ferguson Police Department after the August 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown, who was black, by a white police officer, Darren Wilson. Though Wilson was not charged in the shooting, the report uncovered evidence of racial bias in the department.

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