Jennings, Missouri, which borders the city of Ferguson, where Michael Brown was shot by police, has agreed to pay $4.75 million to nearly 2,000 people who were put in jail because they couldn’t afford to pay the court fines and fees that they owed.
The death of Michael Brown shed a light on a region-wide moneymaking scheme to issue thousands of warrants for minor violations and traffic tickets, routinely throwing people in jail for not paying.
In what one of the lawyers who brought a lawsuit over the practice is calling “the first of its kind and truly historic,” the deal will end the city’s ability to jail people who can’t pay court debts as well as money bail, or allowing people to leave jail only on the condition they come up with a certain amount of money.
“The really unprecedented component of this is that thousands of people who were thrown in jail because they were poor are going to receive compensation,” explained Alec Karakatsanis, a lawyer with Equal Justice Under Law, one of the groups who brought the original lawsuit. “No amount of money can really make up for it, but it’s really important.”
Meanwhile, he added, “The settlement agreement ensures that people won’t be jailed in any way because of their poverty going forward.”
No amount of money can really make up for it
The people who will be compensated for jail time collectively spent about 8,300 days in jail over the course of five years for an inability to afford court fines and fees.
The original lawsuit brought by the groups Equal Justice Under Law and ArchCity Defenders along with the St. Louis University Law School against the city of Jennings alleged that it jailed poor people who couldn’t afford what they owed for traffic tickets and other minor offenses without looking into whether they had the ability to pay, considering other options besides jail, or offering them counsel as required by law. Instead, they were put in jail indefinitely, the lawsuit claimed, until their friends and families could find the money they owed or they were arbitrarily let out for free.
Once in jail, the conditions they endured were “grotesque,” as the lawsuit described. Plaintiffs reported the cells were covered with feces, blood, mold, mucus, and trash and the single toilet was not kept clean by the city. The lawsuit claimed the detainees were kept in the same clothes for days and weeks without access to laundry and were also denied toothbrushes, toothpaste, and soap. Women were allegedly not given adequate menstrual hygiene products and the lack of trash removal sometimes forced them to leave used napkins on the cell floor. Inmates were denied medical care and prescription medication, and were also provided food lacking in adequate nutrition.
The attorneys also alleged that inmates who were jailed for their inability to pay debts had committed suicide in the Jennings jail and others had attempted it over the past two years.
And much like Ferguson, where government reports found that each resident had multiple warrants for minor violations, Jennings issued an average of more than 2.1 arrest warrants per household in 2014, most of which were for unpaid tickets, according to the lawsuit.
The city allegedly earned “millions of dollars” over the last several years through issuing court fines and fees and then jailing those who couldn’t pay. A report found that St. Louis County, home to Jennings and Ferguson, has the country’s second-highest rate of traffic cases per person, and the revenue from tickets and warrants generates an enormous amount of revenue for cities.
Karakatsanis said the settlement deal with Jennings “appears to be the most significant ever debtors’ prison settlement.” It received preliminary court approval on Wednesday.
But debtors’ prisons are an unfortunately common phenomenon in many jurisdictions. The lawsuit Karakatsanis’s group brought against Ferguson at the same time it brought the lawsuit against Jennings is still ongoing, given that the practices it alleges are still contested and the issue of compensation for the plaintiffs hasn’t been resolved. “Unlike Jennings, Ferguson has fought us every step of the way,” Karakatsanis said, but he’s hopeful the settlement with Jennings will have an impact on that case. The lawsuit against the city alleged very similar practices of jailing poor people for an inability to pay debts without inquiry into their ability to pay or the offer of a lawyer. It similarly claimed that inmates were subjected to unsanitary and harmful conditions. A trial has been set for next July.
A number of Supreme Court cases have found that jailing people because they can’t pay debts without assessing whether they can afford to pay violates the Constitution. Yet the practice has still seen a revival, particularly in municipalities that are strapped for cash. They levy fines and fees against defendants and then threaten the defendants with jail until they pay. Others turn the defendants over to private probation companies, which have full discretion to add fines and fees to what they already owed and still threaten clients with jail time to get them to pay.
But there have been some victories against these debtors’ prison practices. A number of lawsuits have resulted in the abolishment of these schemes, potentially with compensation for those who were jailed. After a Department of Justice report on police practices in Ferguson, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) signed reforms into law that cap the revenue courts can reap from defendants. The Department of Justice itself has taken a stance on the practice, sending a letter in March to chief justices and court administrators across the country that warned them against operating debtors’ prisons and other practices that prey on the poor to gain revenue for the courts.
Karakatsanis is optimistic that the settlement with Jennings will only further his fight against debtors’ prisons. “For many, many years, our society and our legal system were really indifferent to how poor people were being treated in the municipal courts and lower-level courts,” he said. This deal “sends a message to other jurisdictions that this trend we’ve seen over the last several years of throwing poor people in cages just because they can’t make monetary payments is not something the federal courts are going to tolerate.”