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St. Louis Suburbs Ferguson and Jennings Sued Over ‘Debtors Prisons’ Criminalizing Poverty

Class action lawsuits slammed the cities of Ferguson and Jennings for making millions of dollars by persecuting residents with an endless cycle of violations, fines, court fees, and arrest warrants.
February 9, 2015, 11:53pm
Photo by Alice Speri/VICE News

Two class action lawsuits filed on behalf of residents of St. Louis County on Sunday accuse the cities of Ferguson and neighboring Jennings of profiting off of poverty by running the modern-day equivalent of "debtors prisons."

Eleven county residents sued the City of Ferguson and nine sued the City of Jennings, each lawsuit seeking class status on behalf of all persons jailed for non-payment of debt and fees from traffic violations and minor offenses. The plaintiffs claimed that they were held in jail indefinitely, denied court hearings, and not informed of their right to a lawyer or provided one while detained.

Both lawsuits were filed in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri by the ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit organization serving the homeless and working poor, professors at St. Louis University Legal Clinic, and the DC-based group Equal Justice Under Law.

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"The City's modern debtors' prison scheme has been increasingly profitable… earning it millions of dollars over the past several years," the lawsuits claim about Ferguson and Jennings. "It has also devastated the City's poor, trapping them for years in a cycle of increased fees, debts, extortion, and cruel jailings."

"The families of indigent people borrow money to buy their loved ones out of jail at rates arbitrarily set by jail officials, only for them later to owe more money to the City… from increased fees and surcharges," the complaints add.

The filings allege that the cities kept debtors in "squalid" and "inhumane" conditions, and that residents whose only crime is the inability to pay a debt owed to the city are held "in overcrowded cells; they are denied toothbrushes, toothpaste, and soap; they are subjected to the stench of excrement and refuse in their congested cells; they are surrounded by walls smeared with mucus, blood and feces; they are kept in the same clothes for days and weeks without access to laundry or clean undergarments."

Adding insult to injury, the plaintiffs claim that guards at both jails "routinely laugh at the inmates and humiliate them with discriminatory and degrading epithets about their poverty and their physical appearance," and that at the Jennings court "courtroom staff often walks down the hallway spraying Fabreze [_sic_] because the stench emanating from the inmates is unbearable."

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The Ferguson government informed VICE News that the city does not discuss lawsuits that are pending in litigation. Jennings officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

"We believe this lawsuit is disturbing because it contains allegations that are not based on objective facts," Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III said in a statement. "It is our hope that the suit will be handled according to the rule of law and the rules of procedure in the federal courts, and not through the media."

Critics of the situation in and around Ferguson point to the impact on the community of what some refer to as "poverty violations" — citations that effectively criminalize poverty while providing municipalities with a considerable source of revenue. In 2013, Ferguson derived 14 percent of its revenues from fines and asset confiscation, amounting to $2.6 million. The city of 21,000 has been hard hit economically — a quarter of its citizens are under the poverty level, and 49 percent of its homes have underwater mortgages. Half of the houses in Jennings are also worth less than their owners owe on them.

Speaking to the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Knowles denied that profit motivated the traffic stops and cycles of fines.

"Absolutely not. As far as the application of fines, the setting of bails, etcetera, that's not something determined in conjunction with city budget demands," he said.

The Ferguson jail is closed for renovation.

"I know that we just underwent a massive renovation of the police department, including the jail facilities," Knowles said. "I can tell you the city has spent a lot of time and money investing in those facilities and when they reopen... they will be top of the line."

In the aftermath of the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown at the hands of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, local residents denounced widespread harassment and profiling by police — including frequent traffic stops and heavy penalties for minor violations.

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As people's frustration at police erupted in the streets, the ArchCity Defenders published a scathing report, accusing St. Louis County — an intricate maze of some 90 municipalities — of heavily subsidizing city budgets by fining mostly poor and black residents.

"Although these practices are not new, many in the region just recently became aware of the ways in which municipal courts make people poor and keep them poor, especially in communities of color," said Thomas Harvey, the group's executive director. "These new lawsuits shine a light on the unlawful practices in these courts and the conditions the poor face when they are arrested and jailed for failing to pay fines because they do not have the means to pay them.

"Because they generate so much revenue, many towns in our region attempt to squeeze every dollar possible out of defendants and their families by jailing citizens who are not criminals, and who are not a threat to society," he added.

Ferguson's traffic revenue increased 44 percent since 2011. When residents fail to show up in court to pay, the municipalities issue arrest warrants — at a pace of 3.6 per household in Ferguson and 2.1 in Jennings, according to the lawsuits.

"When cities operate their police departments and municipal courts for profit, they ignore constitutional protections for defendants and jail them in squalid conditions in the hope those defendants will beg relatives and friends to pay their fines to obtain their release," said Brendan Roediger, one of the St. Louis University Legal Clinic lawyers who filed the complaints. "These suits are another step in making the public aware of the abuses which result from for-profit policing and illegal practices in many municipal courts.

Herbert Nelson Jr., a Ferguson resident suing the city, told the New York Times that he was repeatedly jailed for failing to pay traffic tickets and court fines that kept piling up because he couldn't afford to pay them off.

"I've been trying to imagine a way out of this for years," he said. "Something has to happen where you separate minor cases from serious cases. You can't keep treating normal people with traffic tickets like felons."

His sister Allison was swept up in the same cycle, getting arrest warrants for failing to pay fines, continuing to drive to work in order to be able to pay those fines, and being stopped, jailed, and fined over and over again.

"You drive to work so you can pay the fines, but then you get pulled over, so you owe even more," Allison, who makes $7.75 an hour, told the Times. "Anytime I go outside, I fear that I'll be stopped by the police."

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Complaint--Ferguson Debtors' Prison (FILE STAMPED) by kyhenderson

Complaint--Jennings Debtors' Prisons (FILE STAMPED) by kyhenderson

The protests may be winding down but Ferguson's fight is not over. Read more here.

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi