Civil rights groups have filed a pair of lawsuits on behalf of 20 residents of the Missouri towns of Ferguson and Jennings, accusing municipal courts there of trying to boost city revenues by operating so-called "debtors' prisons" in which individuals unable to pay court costs, fees and fines — including many traffic tickets — "were jailed in deplorable conditions."
Lawyers for 11 people from Ferguson — where a police officer shot dead unarmed, black 18-year-old Michael Brown in August, igniting racial tensions and protests that spread across the United States — and for nine others from nearby Jennings, filed the class-action lawsuits on behalf of their clients, all African-Americans, in U.S. District Court on Sunday.
The lawsuit claims the plaintiffs were held in jail "as a means of coercion to get them to pay fines, with police and jail officials arbitrarily changing the amount of fines to coerce family members or friends to bring them enough cash to satisfy the amount owed," according to a joint press release by civil rights groups.
The city of Ferguson declined to comment on any individual allegation, citing a policy of against commenting on ongoing suits, but it did firmly reject the overall validity of the claims.
In a statement released late Monday, the city said it "disputes any contention that individuals in any specific economic group were targeted for unfair treatment, that Jail detainees are abused in any way, that persons are routinely confined in custody longer than three consecutive days, or that the physical conditions in the Jail were unsanitary or unconstitutionally improper."
The plaintiffs are being represented by attorneys from the Saint Louis University Legal Clinic, the St. Louis-based ArchCity Defenders and Washington, D.C.-based Equal Justice Under the Law organization.
The main accusation laid out in each of the lawsuits is that both cities have pursued the "policy and practice … to jail people when they cannot afford to pay money owed to the city resulting from prior traffic tickets and other minor offenses without conducting any inquiry into the person’s ability to pay and without considering alternatives to imprisonment as required by federal and Missouri law."
The Ferguson lawsuit involves people between the ages of 23 and 62, including 37-year-old Keilee Fant, a single mother who the lawsuit said was jailed over a dozen times in the past two decades for failing to pay old traffic tickets.
The lawsuit details Fant’s case, which included an arrest in October 2013 while she was taking her children to school. She was initially taken to jail in Jennings and told she would not be released unless she was able to pay $300, but then was bounced from jail to jail under the jurisdiction of several different cities — to whom she owed money for unpaid tickets — and St. Louis County before ending up in Ferguson city jail, where she was told the amount to secure her release was $1,400.
After initially being told she would be held indefinitely, Fant was released without having to pay anything before being re-arrested in January 2014, said the lawsuit, which went on to detail another round of transfers to different jails — a situation that led to her being “fired from several jobs because of absences.” Lawyers for Fant and the other plaintiffs described the case as a "Kafkaesque journey through the debtors’ prison network of Saint Louis County — a lawless and labyrinthine scheme of dungeon-like municipal facilities and perpetual debt.”
"Every year, thousands of Saint Louis County residents, including the Plaintiffs in this case, undergo a similar journey, buying or waiting their way out of jail after jail," the lawsuit said.
Ferguson, an African-American majority city in which 22 percent of the 21,000 residents live below the poverty level, was among the cities in Missouri called out in a 2013 report by the ArchCity Defenders, which said that despite Ferguson’s economic circumstances, “fines and court fees compromise the second largest source of revenue for the city, a total of $2,635,400.”
"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,” Thomas Harvey, the executive director of ArchCity Defenders, said in a statement. "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."
The lawsuits detail the cases of the other plaintiffs, who are seeking monetary damages for what the suits said was a “policy and practice” of both Ferguson and Jennings to “confine impoverished people who cannot afford their release in grotesque, dangerous and inhumane conditions.”
The suits describe the conditions in which the plaintiffs were allegedly held, saying they were denied basic toiletries like toothbrushes, toothpaste and soap, and were “subjected to the constant stench of excrement and refuse in their congested cells.”
Although the city lawyers remained reticent, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III weiged in.
“We believe this lawsuit is disturbing because it contains allegations that are not based on objective facts," Knowles 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."