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Ferguson sued over alleged modern-day debtors' prison

Plaintiffs filed federal class action lawsuits over what they allege are municipal court systems that essentially operate as modern-day debtors' prisons.

It has been six months since Michael Brown Jr. was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, but the deep racial and social divides exposed by his killing continue to ripple throughout the region.

Businesses that were damaged during the riots that gripped the city after a grand jury announced that it would not indict the officer who killed Brown are slowly being rebuilt and reopened. Protesters continue to demand police accountability for the killings of unarmed African-Americans. And the state legislature is currently wrestling with a slew of legislation with roots that wind back to last summer’s tumult in Ferguson.

And now, a group of legal and advocacy groups are taking steps to remedy what they describe as a regional criminal justice issue that helped wrench open the racial divide that came to light in the wake of Brown’s death.

Following Brown’s killing in August by now-retired Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, local residents and some elected officials zeroed in on what they say has been a long and torrid history of police abuses. The claims ranged from outright police brutality to day-to-day harassment and unfair stops-and-searches of poor and minority residents. Lawyers and activists said the latter is part of a much broader, systemic pattern across the web of more than 80 small independent municipalities in the suburbs of St. Louis that use petty arrests and exorbitant fines to fill city coffers.

On Sunday, plaintiffs in two separate cases filed federal class action lawsuits against Ferguson and another nearby municipality, Jennings, over what they allege are municipal court systems that essentially operate as modern-day debtors' prisons, targeting poor African-Americans for arrest and incarceration.

WATCH: Ferguson officer won't face charges for deadly shooting

The 11 plaintiffs in the suit against Ferguson were jailed for non-payment and claim they were held indefinitely without attorneys and never given hearings to determine their ability to pay fines and fees. The suit against Jennings claims the nine plaintiffs were held in jail to coerce them into paying their fines. The Jennings group also alleges that police and jailers arbitrarily changed the amounts they owed.

All of the plaintiffs are poor or homeless and have been jailed for weeks or months because of their inability to pay fines for low-level offenses, according to attorneys who filed the respective suits on their behalf.

Both suits were filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. Plaintiffs in both suits are represented by attorneys with the Washington-based non-profit organization Equal Justice Under Law; ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit organization serving the homeless and working poor; and the Saint Louis University School of Law Legal Clinics.

The lawyers say their clients represent just a sampling of those targeted by the debtors' prison scheme, kept in filthy, inhumane conditions. According to the lawsuit, at least four residents who were jailed and "unable to pay for their freedom” committed suicide in the past five months.

“These suits are another step in making the public aware of the abuses which result from for-profit policing and illegal practices in many municipal courts,” said Brendan Roediger, a professor with St. Louis University School of Law’s legal clinic. “When cities operate their police departments and municipal courts for profit, they ignore constitutional protections for defendants and jail them in squalid conditions in the hope those defendants will beg relatives and friends to pay their fines to obtain their release.”

The lawsuits also claim that the scheme is a money-making machine for Ferguson and Jennings, with millions made in arrests between the two municipalities. Ferguson has averaged 3.6 arrest warrants for every household and Jennings 2.1 arrest warrants for every household in recent years, mostly in cases involving old, unpaid debts.

Reached by email, Cheryl Balke, the city clerk of Jennings said that the city would not be commenting on the lawsuit at this time.

In a lengthy statement released Monday evening, the city of Ferguson said it is the city’s policy not to discuss lawsuits that are pending litigation, but that officials are reviewing the lawsuit, which it describes as “disturbing.” “We believe this lawsuit is disturbing because it contains allegations that are not based on objective facts,” said Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III. “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.”

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The city’s prepared statement disputes the accuracy of the allegations made in the complaint, saying that while the city will not comment on the allegations made by any individual claimant in the case, it categorically denies that any specific economic group was targeted for unfair treatment, that detainees were abused or that “physical conditions in the jail were unsanitary or unconstitutionally improper.”

"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 city also notes a list of procedures implemented at the Ferguson jail by Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson on Aug. 19, ten days after Brown’s killing. The list includes the following: a police commander is responsible for monitoring the length of time each detainee is held and that no prisoner is in the facility longer than 72 hours; the jail facility will be maintained at all times in a clean and sanitary condition with adequate lighting and air; and detainees will have access to a toilet, wash basin, and drinking water and fire-retardant bedding (unless there’s a suicide risk).

The city adds that the jail recently went through a $4.5 million renovation that began in 2013 and was completed in January.

As recently as 2013, the city of Ferguson collected more than $2 million in revenue generated from warrants, fines and fees, the city’s second highest revenue stream. In recent years, the city issued more warrants for low-level crimes and traffic offenses than there are people in the entire city. And black motorists were stopped at twice the rate of white motorists despite whites being more likely to be caught with contraband, according to a recent report by the state attorney general’s office.

“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,” said Thomas Harvey, Executive Director of ArchCity Defenders. “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.” 

The Ferguson City Council last year proposed several ordinances aimed at easing the burden of warrants, fines and court costs on low-income residents, including a plan to restructure the way the city uses the fines and fees it collects from arrests. The council also proposed a 15% cap on how much of the revenue from such fees the city could direct to its general purpose fund and the abolition of a number of administrative costs.

The Department of Justice has launched an investigation into Brown's killing to determine if Wilson’s actions the day of the shooting violated any federal civil rights laws. The DOJ is also investigating the Ferguson Police Department as a whole in response to allegations made by many black residents who say the department has targeted them and treated them unfairly. The city is nearly 70% black while the Ferguson police department is about 95% white.

Jennings and Ferguson, joined by the allegations in the two law suits, also share another tie: Darren Wilson. Before joining the Ferguson police department, Wilson was a member of the Jennings Police Department, which was disbanded a little more than three years ago under a cloud of nasty allegations including systemic racism, corruption and excessive force. Jennings is now being patrolled by the St. Louis County police.