Debtors’ prisons were outlawed in the United States before the Civil War. That’s what the history books tell us. In reality, however, they thrive in places like Ferguson, MO, which use them as cash cows.

Consider that in 2013, Ferguson issued an outrageous 1500 arrest warrants for every 1000 citizens. The warrants were largely for non-payment of traffic fines. The targets were often people too poor to afford the fees and fines associated with ‘offenses’ like failing to signal a left turn. That year, the income generated from such low-level violations came to $2.6 million, or 21 percent of the city’s budget.

Individuals from the largely black population of Ferguson get caught in a vicious cycle that takes what little financial resources they have for the payment of traffic fines. If they can’t pay, they go to jail until a friend or family member can scrape together enough cash to get them out. Then, the court ‘kindly’ arranges a payment plan that keeps them in debt. Fail to pay and back to jail they go.

On top of that, the same people are often targeted in the neighboring suburbs of St. Louis. So, instead of being released from the Ferguson jail, they are sent to another municipality to face the same process over fines there.

It’s a cycle from which the poor can’t escape, but several non-profit organizations are coming to their rescue. Federal class-action lawsuits against both Ferguson and nearby Jennings, MO were filed on Sunday by Equal Justice Under Law, the ArchCity Defenders, and the St. Louis University School of Law.

The plaintiffs are 15 “impoverished people” whose treatment is described in the complaint:

“They 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.” 

Furthermore, the complaint alleges that the conditions in the jails are horrendous:

“[Plaintiffs] are kept in overcrowded cells; they are denied toothbrushes, toothpaste, and soap; they are subjected to the stench of excrement and refuse in their congested cells; they are surrounded by walls smeared with mucus, blood and feces; they are kept in the same clothes for days and weeks without access to laundry or clean undergarments…”

Three members of the same family are plaintiffs in the suit against Ferguson: Tonya DeBerry, her 26-year-old son Herbert Nelson, and her 23-year-old daughter Allison Nelson. DeBerry was stopped for expired license plates while driving with her 4-year-old grandson, but then handcuffed and arrested because she had unpaid traffic tickets. Once her daughter managed to put together $300 to get her mother out of jail, DeBerry was transferred to Jennings because she had more unpaid tickets there.

Her son has been jailed four times in the last four years and owes the city at least a couple of thousand dollars. He told NPR:

“We’re not criminals. It’s just driving. … And we’re paying these big punishments. It’s not fair. It’s holding us back. It’s like a cycle. Once you put us in trouble for something so petty … [it’s] just digging a hole and putting us in it.”

Nelson knows that hole well. He lost his driver’s license and then his truck – and now he can’t drive to work to earn the money to pay what he owes. His sister, Allison, can’t join the Navy unless and until she clears up her traffic violations.

It’s common for people to stop showing up at court to deal with the charges because they fear being sent back to jail if they can’t afford the fines. Thomas Harvey, a lawyer with ArchCity Defenders, described the city’s shameful and illegal behavior:

“[Judges] routinely fail to make the inquiry into someone’s ability to pay, even when it’s required by law. At the very moment anyone says, ‘I can’t afford this. I’m on Section 8. I have lived in a homeless shelter,’ that is raising the issue of indigency before the court, and it’s required at that moment for the court to continue that inquiry and not continue to incarcerate someone if they’ve raised that issue of indigency.”

Alec Karakatsanis, of Equal Justice Under Law, said the lawsuits take the issue a step further. Not only do they ask for the arrests to stop, but they also want compensation for those who have gone to jail because they are poor. He said:

“We’ve seen the rise of modern American debtors prisons, and nowhere is that phenomenon more stark than in Ferguson and Jennings municipal courts and municipal jails. We have people languishing in grotesque conditions, solely because of their poverty.”

This illegal behavior isn’t a problem solely in Ferguson and Jennings, but the two cities are among the most flagrant violators of the civil rights of the poor. As Herbert Nelson put the dilemma:

“I’ve been trying to imagine a way out of this for years… You can’t keep treating normal people with traffic tickets like felons. I live a normal life. I have a son. I’m not a bad person. I just don’t have money to pay for all this.”

The immorality of a city robbing its citizens of a viable future is hard to grasp, especially on the scale that it’s occurring in Ferguson. The bad news about the city’s police department and justice system just keeps on coming. The lawsuits have the potential of reining in some the worst abuses and restoring dignity to a deeply embattled population.

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