That's especially true in municipal court, where defendants are not offered any legal aid. Couple the lack of assistance with the heavy fines people are forced to pay relative to their income, and it's no wonder so many of ArchCity Defenders' clients are leery of the system.

"Traffic courts are where most people interact with the justice system," says McAnnar. "And if this is how the justice system is treating people, that breeds complete mistrust for the system as a whole."

"And it's mistrust based on reality," adds Harvey. "You don't have to be a genius to see that when the judge asks you, 'Do you plead guilty or guilty with an explanation?' and regardless of the answer, the next instruction is to go see the woman at the cashier window."

Thomas Harvey, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, came up with the idea for the group when he was a SLU law student.
Eric Fogleman
Thomas Harvey, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, came up with the idea for the group when he was a SLU law student.
Michael-John Voss has many clients who have been severely affected by simple 
traffic tickets.
Eric Fogleman
Michael-John Voss has many clients who have been severely affected by simple traffic tickets.

But there might be a solution, and it's a simple one.

"What can happen is just change the sequence," McAnnar suggests. "Just allow someone when they show up to tell the municipal judge, 'I'm poor. I make $3,000 a year. I can't do anything about that. That's where I am.' Let them make that argument at the beginning instead of making them plead guilty, assessing a fine, and then trying to unravel everything and go backward."

This, argues McAnnar, would prevent a litany of problems for poor people and save city courts significant amounts of money in court and jail costs. It would also eliminate a few barriers that stand in the way of those people who genuinely want to improve their lives.

"People are entitled to an indigency hearing," adds Harvey. "But many people don't ask for it because they don't know about it."


Earlier this year, Melvin Bain was back at the St. Louis municipal courthouse for his trespassing charge at Lumière Place Casino. Only this time he had Lummus by his side.

Lummus remembers standing next to Bain in the courtroom, where the smell of firewood hung in the air, a result of her client trying to keep warm the night before at his camp along the riverfront.

"We know a lot of the homeless folks at the Landing because we deal with a lot of their friends," says Lummus, who was told of Bain's plight from another man staying along the riverfront. To Lummus, the charges facing Bain were unjust.

"This guy did not deserve a B misdemeanor," she continues, adding that it's almost as if the city has made being homeless a crime. "If you're outside, you're trespassing. If you pee outside, that's public urination. If you beg for money, you get a panhandling charge."

"Yeah, they gave me tickets for panhandling," Bain sighs in disbelief.

Eventually Lummus got Bain's panhandling fines thrown out. Meanwhile, his trespassing citation will be dropped if he stays out of trouble through his next two court appearances.

For most attorneys, Lummus' work would have ended there. But under the holistic- defense model, her next step is trying to get Bain into permanent housing. That way he won't be so susceptible to another trespassing charge or any of the other municipal violations that impact the homeless.

Lummus, who is a Navy veteran like Bain, figured he'd be a good fit for St. Patrick Center's Project HERO (Housing, Employment & Recovery Opportunities), a program that helps homeless vets get back on their feet. Participants get their own apartment and pay one-third of their income toward rent.

The problem was that Bain didn't have the paperwork to prove his military service. Lummus went through the bureaucratic process of getting him verified through the Navy and, finally, admitted to Project HERO.

Bain also found a dishwashing job at a coffee shop. He's working now and paying his way. For the first time in years, it's unlikely he'll go through the day at risk of picking up a trespassing or panhandling citation.

"It feels good, really good," Bain says. "Steph — she's my little guardian angel."

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11 comments
egolterman
egolterman topcommenter

And in this downtown nearly $400 million is being spent to add a couple of miles of walk, and bike paths up to the Arch, the Cardinals owners are doubling their profits with Ballpark Village and this is after the Art Museum spent $170 million for an add-on which includes a huge parking-for-pay garage. Some young lawyers would do a lot more for the poor and veterans and the homeless by filing suit against the perps who do such deals.

frankd4
frankd4 topcommenter

.................and as for the BLACK / WHITE comments here,  i simply do not see the relevance when related to the economics because it has been long ago established that EDUCATION is the answer to ones future success in life (however that person defines the success that sustains them)

...............and any reference to founding fathers must include the fact that they were, in the end, all POLITICIANs, and to various degrees, with all the faux sincerity and self-agrandizing attitude that comes naturally with that pursuit, in it for themselves first - the only real heros are the ones that died in battle = period

frankd4
frankd4 topcommenter

.................... "holistic advocacy"  misses the point that there is a industrial judicial complex that depends on these issues to exist so that judges retirement plans can be funded and LEOs overtime readily available so LEOs may remain current on their boat payments and the local politicians can offer their favors to build prisons and courthouses to their construction contracting cronies for kick-backs and bribes and of course there is the entire legal professionals fees from billable hours that grease the wheels of justice here in america (and of course even wall street has a hand in taking prisons public to the investing crowd)

just as we need to incite trouble around the world to keep an industrial military complex humming we need to have hobos and vagrants and miscreants being pursued and prosecuted for being poor and disenfranchised

this country gave up any claim to charity when we killed of an entire nation of indigenous peoples who were already here for thousands of years,  wiping out all trace of their language and custom and tradition - if we could make a buck from them by charging admission in a museum maybe a few would have survived intact

but luckily the poor offer so many sources of revenue and benefits for the industrial judicial system america will keep them around for a while so long as their utility remains profitable

valentino.martinez
valentino.martinez

First, KUDOS to RFT’s Ray Downs for a splendid story of true Super-Heroes – the ArchCity Defenders who operate here in St. Louis on behalf of the downtrodden – the homeless, in particular, which includes veterans. BTW--LOVE the RFT cover – it would make Stan Lee proud.


I have to say, for legal professionals who could be doing so many other things – but choose to defend the disadvantaged vs. a justice system that ostracizes and penalizes those caught in the system – well, you’re the BEST.You show that indeed – and in deed -- there is hope & humanity where, prior to your arrival, there was confusion, frustration and desperation.


@JamesMadison or whatever your name is – solving the “real problem” starts at ground level where the pain is.Ray Down’s brilliant exposé here is the sort of investigative journalism that flushes out the real problem – and he’s discovered many.A flip remark like yours suggests that the ArchDefenders might be part of the problem because they’re not solving the problem you failed to define.


Hats off to the ArchDefenders because you are SuperHeroes and, in my view, true Knights in Shining Armor taking on the dragons in a system that feeds on the downtrodden.Godspeed you and your important work at ground-level where the problems have festered

DonkeyHotay
DonkeyHotay topcommenter

.

          When poverty is outlawed, only outlaws will be poor.

JamesMadison
JamesMadison topcommenter

It is good that someone will defend those being arrested for being poor, but the real problem is a city ordinance and a justice system that decides to fine those who do not have money. Offer them a day's work to pay off some of their fines. Clean the streets and sidewalks. Pull weeds. Find something for them to do other than constantly returning to court and telling the judge they cannot pay their fine - A fine levied against them mainly due to them being poor.


A superhero does not just keep doing the same thing over and over. They solve the real problem. That is my definition of a superhero.

JamesMadison
JamesMadison topcommenter

@DonkeyHotay, the the writer of our Constitution and freedoms. But less importantly. A middle name and a mother's maiden name for a bit of fun. Get a life. Stop living 240 years ago. The present is much more exciting. And playground bullying of making fun of names is so-so childish, well, you're making an ass of yourself for doing so. ;)

DonkeyHotay
DonkeyHotay topcommenter

@JamesMadison


I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

-- Abraham Lincoln

JamesMadison
JamesMadison topcommenter

@DonkeyHotay, he did write the framework for their freedoms. Many slave owners did not care for the system, but it was the way of life at the time. Before slavery could be abolished, the owners had to be free of their English king. The slaves were freed later, but in historical terms, not all that much longer - less than four scores after the US constitution was adopted. Early compromise made it possible for a nation to reject slavery at a later date.


I am happy you can reflect back over two hundred years, and place your 21st century condemnation upon men who were trying to free themselves first. The benefit of hindsight is never to be underestimated in a smug and righteous attitude.


Without slave owners like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, you would be kneeling to a king, not living in a republic. Great men are not perfect, but merely humans born into their times and customs.

DonkeyHotay
DonkeyHotay topcommenter

@JamesMadison ... he didn't write any "freedoms" for the Negro slaves he abused, bought, sold and fornicated with ... now did he?



 
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