13 St. Louis Suburbs Sued In ‘Debtors’ Prison’ Cases

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Photo by Philip Leara via Flickr

Photo by Philip Leara via Flickr

Thirteen cities in St. Louis County, Mo., are accused in a new class-action lawsuit of jailing poor people who can’t afford to pay their court fines, NPR reports. These are fines for minor offenses, including traffic tickets. The suit alleges that the cities are ticketing poor black people to raise money to fund their governments. Thomas Harvey of Arch City Defenders, which filed the case, describes the process this way: “People are arrested and thrown into a cage. They’re told by their jailer that they owe a certain dollar amount … If you can’t pay it, they sometimes release you three days later, after they reduce the dollar amount. They negotiate with you, haggle with you until they find a squeal point where you can make bail and let you out. They don’t take them before a judge. They’re not given a lawyer. They are negotiating their bond with the person who has the keys to the jailhouse door.”

 

Last month, the city of Jennings, Mo., settled a similar suit. Harvey says the city changed “in wholesale fashion, the practices and procedures in their municipal court. So they no longer issue warrants for people who failed to pay in their court.” He explains that there is now a four-step process to issue a warrant for the failure to appear, which includes phone calls and letters to the person. The practice previously was to assess a fine regardless of a person’s income and then put that person on a payment docket. If they were unable to make the payment in full, they had to come back every month and explain to the judge why they didn’t have their full payment.

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