AFRICANGLOBE – Six months after the streets of Ferguson erupted in response to the police shooting of Michael Brown, a group of civil rights lawyers is suing the city on behalf of residents who say they were jailed in deplorable conditions, for being too poor to pay court fines.
The lawsuit, which was filed on Sunday on behalf of 11 residents of Ferguson, alleges that the city has for many years operated a “municipal scheme designed to brutalize, to punish, and to profit” off the poorest members in the community. The suit claims city officials violated the US constitution by jailing people without making a meaningful inquiry into their ability to pay court-ordered fines or offering them a lawyer.
“Instead,” the lawsuit alleges, “they were threatened, abused, and left to languish in confinement at the mercy of local officials until their frightened family members could produce enough cash to buy their freedom or until city jail officials decided, days or weeks later, to let them out for free.”
The city of Ferguson disputed allegations made in the lawsuit that poor residents were targeted for unfair treatment.
“We believe this lawsuit is disturbing because it contains allegations that are not based on objective facts,” Ferguson’s 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.”
The city also denied that prisoners were abused and that the physical conditions in the jail were unsanitary or unconstitutionally improper.
The suits are seeking a declaration that the cities’ police forces violated the civil rights of the residents, an injunction to stop the allegedly illegal practices and damages.
Courts are prohibited from jailing offenders who cannot afford to pay fines and requires that officials make a meaningful inquiry into a person’s ability to pay before putting them behind bars. Despite this a growing number of poor, low-level offenders are doing time because they cannot keep up with fees they owe to courts.
Ferguson is hardly an outlier – modern-day debtors’ prisons have cropped up across the country. But the situation in the St Louis suburb is particularly acute, said Alec Karakatsanis, a co-founder of the civil rights non-profit Equal Justice Under Law, one of the groups representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuits.
In 2013, the estimated population of Ferguson was 21,111. That year, Ferguson courts issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses, mostly driving violations.
“What we’re seeing is a growing effort to generate revenue off the backs of the poorest using the police and court system,” Karakatsanis said, adding that the practice had exacerbated tensions between citizens and authorities in Ferguson.
“When you actually talk to the people living in the communities, one of the most central issues is the constant harassment and threat of incarceration because of their poverty,” Karakatsanis said.
Nine residents of the neighboring city of Jennings, Missouri, filed a separate but similar lawsuit, claiming courts sent people to jail as a means of coercing them and their families to pay outstanding fines.
The suits also claim residents were housed in “filthy conditions”, with several people crowded into small cells without regular showers, adequate medical care or basic sanitation. Prisoners were denied requests for items such as clean clothes and a toothbrush, and suffered verbal abuse from guards, the suits allege.
“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,” attorney Thomas Harvey, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, which provides legal services to the indigent and working poor of St Louis, said in a statement.
“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.”
In the wake of unrest last year over Brown’s murder, Ferguson elected officials vowed to make reforms to the city’s system of court fines, which residents blamed for stoking tensions. In September, the Ferguson city council announced a proposal to cap revenues on court fines and fees at 15% of the city’s budget.
Excess revenue is to be “earmarked for special community projects”, rather than running the city bureaucracy.
Sam Brooke, a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is not involved in the two suits but has represented other plaintiffs in similar situations, said he was hopeful the lawsuits would stop the practice of unjustly turning a profit on the backs of the city’s poorest residents.
Brooke said: “I view today as a very good day because it means that advocates are now taking a step forward in really aiming at maybe not the prime problem that gave rise to the events in Ferguson, but certainly one of the underlying problems that, if addressed, is certainly going to go a long way in restoring some confidence in the law.”
By: Lauren Gambino