Keilee Fant has been incarcerated in the past because she couldn’t afford to pay her traffic tickets.
One time, Fant was detained in the city jail in Ferguson, Mo., for almost 50 days, without access to a toothbrush, shower, or change of clothes. Fant missed her father’s funeral while she was incarcerated.
Roelif Carter, a 62-year-old military veteran who suffers from a brain aneurism, was also jailed in Ferguson because he couldn’t pay $100 a month for his traffic violation fines.
Jail staff refused to let Carter’s wife bring his medication for high blood pressure and head pain caused by the aneurism.
These and other allegations are detailed in two federal class action lawsuits suing the city of Ferguson and Jennings, Mo., for jailing the poor when they cannot afford fines for traffic tickets and other minor offenses, violating their constitutional rights.
The lawsuit was filed on Sunday at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri by civil rights organization Equal Justice Under Law, public defender group ArchCity Defenders, and the St. Louis University School of Law. They are representing a group of local residents who have cycled in and out of jail after accruing additional debt when they fail to make payments on their initial fines.
The court complaint against Ferguson describes the cities’ court systems as a “modern-day debtors’ prison network” that leads impoverished people into “a lawless and labyrinthine scheme of dungeon-like municipal facilities and perpetual debt.”
Details about the conditions within the Ferguson jail are particularly harrowing, where there is a “constant stench of excrement and refuse in their congested cells” and “walls smeared with mucus and blood,” according to the complaint. Inmates are not allowed to shower or get clean clothes. If they develop illnesses or infections while detained, jail staff do not provide any treatment. Inmates are served a honey bun for breakfast and a pot pie for lunch and dinner.
In 2014, there was an average of 3.62 arrest warrants issued to each household in Ferguson and 2.2. arrest warrants issued for each adult, according to Equal Justice Under Law.
The complaint also documented a racial disparity among those incarcerated for their debts: blacks are more likely than whites to be stopped, searched, and arrested. In Ferguson, 86 percent of vehicle stops involved blacks, who make up 67 percent of the city’s population, according to a November 2014 report by the ArchCity Defenders. Whites make up 29 percent of the population but 12.7 percent of vehicle stops. This is despite the fact that searches involving white drivers were more likely to produce contraband than those of black drivers: 34 percent of the time versus 21.7 percent.
A Supreme Court ruling in 1983, Bearden v. Georgia, prohibited judges from imprisoning defendants if they were too poor to pay their court fines, and required judges to consider the defendant’s ability to pay when deciding their sentence. The Constitution’s Eighth Amendment also prohibits excessive fines and bail.
But courts continue to have great license to imprison indigent defendants. These “modern-day debtors’ prisons” have been the subject of many legal and civil rights groups’ concerns. Investigations by the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York University Brennan Center for Justice in 2010 found that states and counties across the country often did not provide indigent defendants with a lawyer and pursued them for their debts even after they had served jail sentences. Some states hire private debt-collecting agencies, who profit from charging defendants additional fees and interest. The costs of incarcerating these defendants often ended up being more expensive than the fines they owed.
In Montgomery, Ala., a similar federal class-action lawsuit was filed against the city, challenging the constitutionality of jailing people who could not pay their traffic ticket fines to Judicial Correction Services (JCS), a for-profit company the city contracted with to collect the payments. In August last year, the city signed a settlement agreement to end its contract with JCS and the practice of jailing indigent defendants, in addition to offering an option for defendants to perform community service in lieu of monetary fines.