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'Something has to happen where you separate minor cases from serious cases. You can’t keep treating normal people with traffic tickets like felons,' said Herbert Nelson, left, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. (Photo: NPR)

Lawsuits Launched to Target Missouri 'Debtors' Prisons' Scheme

Systems in Ferguson and Jennings 'designed to brutalize, to punish, and to profit.'

Nadia Prupis

A group of civil rights advocates is suing the cities of Ferguson and Jennings, Missouri for unconstitutional incarceration and policing practices that they say have helped turn the cities' jails into "debtors' prisons."

Filed Sunday, the lawsuits charge that Ferguson and Jennings routinely jail people for being unable to pay traffic tickets, court fees, and other fines, housing them in "deplorable conditions" and locking them into a cycle of "increased fees, debts, extortion, and cruel jailings."

"City officials and employees—through their conduct, decisions, training and lack of training, rules, policies, and practices—have built a municipal scheme designed to brutalize, to punish, and to profit," the suit continues.

All of the plaintiffs represented in the lawsuits are black.

The lawsuits come amid a growing civil rights movement which is calling attention to systemic racism and inequality in the U.S., exemplified in the police killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson six months ago.

"We lock up people at historically high rates in this country," Thomas Harvey, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, one of the firms involved in the case, told Common Dreams. "It's easier for communities to do that when it's poor people. It's easier for communities to do that when it's black people." And while the laws may not have been designed to target those demographics explicitly, they can be judged "on the results the system produces."

"We now think it's okay to put people in a cage because they owe us money," Harvey said.

"These policies are allowed to take place because of who they are happening to," Alec Karakatsanis, co-founder of Equal Justice Under Law, which is also involved in the case, told Common Dreams. "They are happening to the marginalized and the voiceless. Our country has become so desensitized to caging human beings, that it no longer strikes us as extraordinary to lock poor people up for debt.​"

"The municipal governments and a small group of official and lawyers and employees dependent on this scheme may benefit in the short term, but these kinds of schemes eat away at the fabric of our communities in a way that is devastating for all of us," Karakatsanis added.

The lawsuits, filed by ArchCity Defenders, Equal Justice Under Law, and the St. Louis University School of Law, highlight 15 such cases between the two cities in which plaintiffs 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."

Their treatment by the city violates the 1st, 4th, 6th, 8th, and 14th Amendments, the lawsuits state. In many cases, plaintiffs were either not made aware of their rights to a public defender or told they would have to pay for a private attorney. Other times, pro bono lawyers were prevented from offering their services. More notably, Harvey said, the cities continued to jail individuals even after their case had ended, such as those plaintiffs who agreed to plea deals to pay a fee.

"You can't use the police to collect your debts," Harvey said.

Once jailed, plaintiffs were made to "endure grotesque treatment," one lawsuit describes (pdf). Cells are overcrowded and covered in filth; guards are often abusive; plaintiffs are denied toothbrushes, blankets, clean clothes, and access to their own medication; many suffer from dehydration and weight loss due to a lack of clean water or nutritious food.

The lawsuit continues: "Perhaps worst of all, they do not know when they will be allowed to leave."

Herbert Nelson, 26, has been jailed at least four times in Ferguson for being unable to pay old fines and court costs. He has been ticketed for charges ranging from misdemeanor possession of marijuana to failing to use a turn signal.

"I’ve been trying to imagine a way out of this for years," he told the New York Times on Monday. "Something has to happen where you separate minor cases from serious cases. You can’t keep treating normal people with traffic tickets like felons."

The policies are similar in Jennings (pdf), where Tonya DeBerry, 52, has faced repeated jailings over the past 13 years for unpaid court fines. In that period, she has lost thousands of dollars to the system for surcharges and other added fees.

On one occasion in April, DeBerry arrived to the Jennings court to pay a $100 monthly payment, only to find herself locked out of the building due to proceedings—a constitutional violation in itself, the lawsuit states. A court officer instructed her to call the next day, but when she did, she was told the payment would not be accepted late and that a warrant had been issued for her arrest. She was jailed in September, and again in January, at which point her total debt to the city was about $2,400.

Initially, DeBerry was told she would have to pay the full amount to secure her release. Over the course of two days, her debt was lowered to $100.

Plaintiffs like DeBerry are often told, "We're not going to release you unless you pay a fee," only to see those fees reduced over time, Harvey said. The city is "extorting them for as much money as they can possibly get [when] they shouldn't be in jail."

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles disputed the allegations, saying on Monday that the lawsuit against the city "contains allegations that are not based on objective facts" and noting that the jails had undergone a $4.5 million renovation. He also pointed to 2010 policy changes that put a 72-hour limit on holding inmates.

But that statement is damning in itself, Harvey said. "It's saying, 'We acknowledge [the jail] was in bad shape before.'" As for the 72-hour limit, he added, in a city that routinely violates constitutional amendments, "How hard would it be to ignore an internal memo?"

Karakatsanis agreed. Any "superficial changes" to the jail facilities doesn't change "the architecture of policing, ticketing, and debt-collection [that] remains in place to this day."

The lawsuits and the Black Lives Matter movement are "deeply connected," Karakatsanis continued. "[T]hey are about a culture that has allowed enormous control and oppression of people of color.​"

This article has been updated to include comments from Alec Karakatsanis.

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