St. Louis Suburb Paying $4.7M In Major ‘Debtors’ Prison’ Case

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DebtJeff Djevdet

Photo by Jeff Djevdet via Flickr

Jennings, Mo., a city neighboring Ferguson, has agreed to pay $4.7 million to 2,000 mostly poor, black residents it jailed for unpaid court debts, many of them for minor offenses such as traffic tickets, reports the Washington Post. The agreement comes in a proposed settlement of a class-action lawsuit preliminarily approved by a federal judge. The deal would mark the highest daily rate of compensation reached in a settlement with a U.S. municipality to resolve incarceration practices of this kind, say civil rights lawyers who brought the case. Critics of the jailings argued that they criminalize poverty and called the detentions unconstitutional because of a prohibition against jailing people just because they are too poor to pay.

The city reached “a comprehensive settlement that hopefully can be a model for other jurisdictions employing debtors’ prisons and cash bail,” said Thomas Harvey of ArchCity Defenders of St. Louis, which represented eight lead plaintiffs with lawyers from the Saint Louis University School of Law and Washington-based Equal Justice Under Law. Harvey added that “there are 90 cities surrounding Jennings and Ferguson. Until all of them change their practices either voluntarily or as the result of legislation or litigation . . . this is still going to be a region that over-polices for revenue and criminalizes black life.” Jennings has 14,700 residents. The agreement includes an additional $1 million to $2 million in debt forgiveness for those detained for nonpayment in the city’s jail between Feb. 8, 2010, and Sept. 16, 2015. Ferguson has adopted its own reforms but not settled its case after mediation, with a trial tentatively set for next July.  The Justice Department in March wrote local courts in all 50 states to warn them that raising revenue through fines and fees that exposed poor people to escalating debt and were enforced through jail time or driver’s license suspensions often violated constitutional protections.


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