Judge Rules in Favor of Inmates Held in Jail Over Their Inability to Pay Bail Under Unconstitutional Bond Hearings Scheme

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About six months after a lawsuit was filed against the city of St. Louis, a judge has ruled that jails in the city cannot hold inmates because they cannot afford to bail themselves out.

The class-action suit was filed on Jan. 28 with the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. In it, plaintiffs David Dixon, Jeffrey Rozelle, Aaron Thurman and Richard Robards alleged they remained detained in the city’s two jails because they could not muster up the cash for bond.

St. Louis.
St. Louis inmates alleged the city “violated their constitutional rights when they remained imprisoned because they couldn’t afford bail. (Getty Images)

The inmates alleged in the suit that the city as well as named defendants that included Commissioner of Corrections Dale Glass and Sheriff Vernon Betts “violated their constitutional rights to equal protection and substantive and procedural due process by detaining them after arrest without an opportunity to challenge the conditions of their release.”

As the suit waged on, Robards and Thurman were released from jail in February after lawyers came to an agreement give them bail hearings.

On Tuesday, June 11, U.S. District Judge Audrey Fleissig determined St. Louis jails should be prohibited from holding inmates just because they can’t bond themselves out. Dixon, Rozelle, Thurman and Robards were granted class-action status, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Flessing wrote about the sheriff’s deputies who instruct inmates not to speak or ask for a bond reduction at their initial hearing.

“Ample evidence in the record shows that the duty judge presiding over initial appearances rarely considers information about an arrestee’s financial circumstances because the bond commissioner rarely provides it and arrestees are instructed not to speak,” she wrote.

Now officials have one week to hold new detention hearings for current inmates in the city’s two jails. Additionally, the ruling notes any newly arrested persons are required to have a hearing within 48 hours of their detention. In her decision, Fleissig wrote that inmates can continue to be held if they are deemed a danger to the community or if there is no other option to guarantee they arrive at their hearing.

St. Louis officials, citing the administrative difficulty of holding hundreds of bond hearings on such a short time frame and the possibility that they prevail upon appeal, asked the judge on Thursday to extend her one-week deadline to 30 days or put her order on hold.

“The city has operated this racist and predatory scheme for decades and cavalierly destroyed the lives of countless thousands of people, disproportionately impacted black people, and not made St. Louis safer,” said one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Thomas Harvey of the Advancement Project, in a statement to The St. Louis American. “This is the first step in ending wealth-based pretrial detention and closing the Workhouse [the St. Louis Medium Security Institution] permanently.”