Two years before Ferguson, Mo., attracted national attention for racial tension and questionable court practices, a group of local volunteer lawyers calling itself the ArchCity Defenders was already concluding that something was off about the city, says the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Today the group is at the forefront of a legal movement to overhaul municipal courts regionally that has already secured broad political support for lowering court fines and fees. Lawyer Thomas Harvey was one of the initial volunteers. What he was hearing brought to mind debtors prisons, which had been illegal for years.
Harvey and his partners began working on a white paper they hoped would explain what they say are unconstitutional municipal court practices. The paper took off in national social justice circles just as Ferguson erupted in protest over the killing of Michael Brown by then-Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson. The St. Louis lawyers took some of their inspiration from the Bronx Defenders organization in New York City, which pioneered the “holistic defense” model. The strategy seeks to keep a single arrest from cascading into other problems, such as job loss, housing eviction and even loss of child custody. “You can get arrested for a low-level crime, and if you don't have the $200 for bail, you can spend up to a year in jail waiting for your day in court,” said The Bronx group’s Alex Sierck.