St. Louis Suburb Forced to Pay $4.7M Settlement for Illegally Jailing Nearly 2,000 People

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Protesters gather outside the Pine Lawn Police Department in Missouri. Photo by MICHAEL B. THOMAS/GETTY IMAGES
Protesters gather outside the Pine Lawn Police Department in Missouri. Photo by MICHAEL B. THOMAS/GETTY IMAGES

A federal judge on Wednesday approved a $4.7 million settlement to reimburse nearly 2,000 people in Jennings, Missouri, who were illegally jailed for their inability to pay court fines.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the settlement identified 1,964 individuals who collectively spent more than 8,000 nights behind bars for “failure to pay” between Feb. 8, 2010, and Sept. 16, 2015.

The initial lawsuit, filed earlier this year, accused the Jennings jail of running a modern-day debtor’s prison by jailing low-income individuals who it knew couldn’t afford to pay the hefty fines. Plaintiffs in the suit also alleged they were taunted by jail staff and kept in unsanitary cells for extended periods of time. The city denied both of those claims in Wednesday’s settlement, however.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the agreement was previously approved in July, one year after a U.S. District Court in St. Louis signed a separate settlement to eliminate cash bail for cases filed in municipal court and dismiss failure-to-appear fees. Moreover, the agreement promised to establish  “meaningful inquiry” into an individual’s ability to pay monetary fines, use civil debt collectors to obtain payments for fines rather than issue an arrest warrant, and immediately release people on their first arrest.

According to Blake Strode, a lawyer for local civil rights firm ArchCity Defenders, only 414 people have come forward so far with valid claims linked to Wednesday’s settlement. He said attorneys are still sorting through a list of 306 others who made claims but were not identified in the initial record search of those who were illegally jailed.

Each plaintiff is expected to receive a portion of the $3.5 million, while the other $1.2 million will go to their attorneys from ArchCity, the St. Louis University law school and the Washington-based group Equal Justice Under Law, according to the Post-Dispatch. There’s no word on exactly how much each complainant will be compensated, but the amount will likely be based on the number of people who come forward and how much time each spent in jail.

The case(s) against Jennings are just a few in a series of lawsuits filed against numerous St. Louis suburbs following the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In August of this year, over a dozen plaintiffs filed suits against 13 St. Louis suburbs accusing them of “extorting money” from poor, African-American residents via traffic tickets  in “a deliberate and coordinated scheme … to fill [their] coffers.” The suits also argue that the towns would jail people for extended periods of time as hefty fines and jail time piled up on those who were unable to pay, Atlanta Black Star reported.

“We’ve had people that have spent weeks in jails for traffic violations and not only does that run afoul of the expectations we would have for that kind of violation, but it runs afoul of the Constitution,” Strode said. “No one’s arguing that there shouldn’t be any punishment for these things, but what we can’t do is hold people in jail because they’re too poor to pay a debt.”

Presiding Judge Carol Jackson called Wednesday’s settlement “fair, reasonable and adequate” and commended both sides for coming to a sound agreement.

According to Mother Jones, several cases against cities accused of running debtor’s prisons for profit have occurred over the past year. For instance, in Biloxi, Mississippi, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint against the city alleging that poor Black residents were being “routinely” arrested and jailed without being granted a court hearing to determine whether they could pay their fines. Meanwhile in Benton County, Washington, a suit also filed by the ACLU, accused the town of incarcerating those who were unable to pay their fines or forcing them to work on the county work crew as a means of “partial confinement.”

In both cases, the cities were strapped for cash and relied on the court fees and fines for a large portion of their budgets.

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