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Debtor’s Prison for Misdemeanor Debts – Is City of Ferguson Making Money Off of Poor People?

Debtor’s prisons are not supposed to exist in the United States. You’re not supposed to be forced behind bars because you cannot pay a debt — that is the reason for federal bankruptcy laws, to help people in bad financial straits to work things out with their creditors and get a “fresh start.”

Creditors can harass you by phone and ruin your credit rating, but they cannot throw you in jail if you stop paying your mortgage or if you fail to pay off your credit card charges.

However, things are different here in America when it’s not consumer debts that are unpaid, but fines assessed based upon criminal laws or court rulings. People still go to jail today if they cannot find the cash to pay those fines. Like over in Missouri, where this practice is being challenged in a federal lawsuit.

Ferguson Missouri Injustice: Debtor’s Prison for Folks Who Can’t Pay Their City Fines

In Ferguson, Missouri, a federal complaint has been filed against the city of Ferguson because that municipal government is putting people behind bars, and into jails with “inhumane conditions” when they cannot pay their city fines.  (Imagine the pressure to find the money to pay those fines.)

Read the federal complaint here, available in our Digital Library:

Eleven plaintiffs have sued the City of Ferguson in federal court (there is a similar lawsuit filed by others against the city of Jennings, Missouri), alleging that their constitutional rights have been violated — and the plaintiffs are asking the federal judge to approve this case as a “class action,” which makes it a very big deal (if the judge grants their request).

In case you’re wondering how these people cannot afford to pay their fines but they can afford to hire lawyers to sue, they’re not paying their lawyers to sue. The lawyers who are helping the plaintiffs here are not being paid for their efforts – they are representing their clients pro bono, providing legal counsel via the Equal Justice Under Law and ArchCity Defenders (advocate groups) and the University of St. Louis School of Law.

Allegations of Fines as Profit-Making Machine

One thing that the petition claims is that the municipality (City of Ferguson) is assessing fines for all sorts of things, including traffic tickets, just to make some money and increase city revenues. From their petition:

In 2014, the City of Ferguson issued an average of more than 3.6 arrest warrants per household and almost 2.2 arrest warrants for every adult, mostly in cases involving unpaid debt for tickets. The City of Ferguson issues more arrest warrants per capita than any other city in Missouri larger than 10,000 residents. If the rest of the Saint Louis metropolitan area generated revenue from its courts at the rate done by relatively low-income Ferguson, it would have made nearly $1.3 billion in the past five years…. The City’s modern debtors’ prison scheme has been increasingly profitable to the City of Ferguson, earning it millions of dollars over the past several years.

Allegations of Inhumane Conditions in the Jail

The plaintiffs argue that those who are put behind bars are left to survive in crowded cells and “unsanitary, unsafe, and inhumane” conditions. From the complaint, a description of what one plaintiff allegedly indured:

In addition to enduring overcrowding with other inmate debtors, Ms. Fant was confined in a cell that lacked basic hygiene (for example, she was told that she would not be given feminine products for menstruation), medical care, exercise, and adequate food.

On one occasion, an elderly woman being held because she could not afford a few hundred dollars was shivering because the jail was very cold and because the jail staff refused to give women more than one blanket. After Ms. Fant allowed the woman to share her blanket with her, the guards began shouting at the women that they were “stanky ass dykes” and “dirty whores.”

Ferguson jail guards routinely insulted and verbally abused female inmate debtors. On numerous occasions, referring to the grotesque conditions and lack of any feminine products, showers, toothbrushes, or soap, guards mocked the impoverished women for the way that they smelled. Male guards would shout things like: “you hoes stink” and “you need to wash out your coochies.”

Ms. Fant still owes significant debts to the City. She is frightened that the City will again jail her indefinitely until she and her family can pay enough to secure her release.

Response from City of Ferguson

The city has its own legal team at the ready, and the municipality will fight these claims in federal court. In statements released to the press, Ferguson argues that no one specific group has been targeted for special (or unfair) treatment and no one has been abused or treated badly in city jails. Ferguson maintains that its jails are not unsanitary and that it is not violating anyone’s constitutional rights who is confined behind bars by municipal authorities.

Of note, the jail facilities were renovated just a few years ago (2010) so these aren’t some of the ancient kind of jail cells that house prisoners without modern heating or cooling like we see here in Texas. See, “Behind Bars in Texas: Heat Hot Enough to Kill You, Dangers Everywhere, and Maybe Some Pet Food on Your Tray: Texas Can’t Pay People Enough to Work In These Conditions.”

Is The Motivation Here More Revenue for City Coffers? Here’s an Idea

Ferguson is a small governmental entity, a town that is a suburban municipality living alongside St. Louis, Missouri. Like many other suburban satellites, it’s got to find its money somewhere — so the idea that the city police are out there handing out lots of tickets for speeders and other minor traffic offenses isn’t a new concept.

Here in Texas, there are several little towns similarly situated that have reputations for being “speed traps” and the argument is it’s all because the city needs to make some dough. (Think Selma near San Antonio, for instance; or either Ennis or Corsicana near Dallas).

However, there’s a basic unfairness here when poor people cannot pay their fines, right? Add to that being treated badly in the jail cell and asked to survive there in disgusting conditions is shockingly unfair.

This case will play out in federal court and there’s always two sides to the story, so expect to hear the other side of things when the Ferguson attorneys hold their press conference(s).

However, if this really is all about money, here’s a thought: the State of Colorado just announced it has made $44,000,000 in one year (2014) from its sales tax revenue on marijuana sold there.

Just something for Missouri — and the City of Ferguson — to think about.

Texas is; see “Legal Marijuana in Texas: Will HB507 Legalize Small Amounts of Pot Statewide? It Just May Happen.

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