By Carey Gillam
(Reuters) - Ferguson, Missouri and a second St. Louis suburb are being accused in separate lawsuits of operating a "debtors' prison scheme," illegally jailing poor people who are unable to pay traffic tickets or fines tied to other minor offenses.
The lawsuits, filed on Sunday in U.S. District Court in St. Louis by 20 black residents, allege that officials in Ferguson and neighboring Jennings have routinely been abusing and exploiting impoverished individuals to boost city revenues. The plaintiffs are seeking class-action status for the cases.
Ferguson has been the focus of international attention since last year when a white police officer shot dead Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man, and was later cleared of any wrongdoing by a grand jury.
The lawsuits accuse both cities of issuing and enforcing invalid arrest warrants and jailing people who cannot pay fines for long periods without any court appearances in "dangerous and inhumane conditions."
The plaintiffs claim that the money the plaintiffs are told they owe is often arbitrarily modified, and the individuals are frequently kept locked in a cycle of jail time and indebtedness to the municipal courts as late fees and surcharges are added to initial fines.
The allegations are the latest complaints of unfair treatment of poor people and minorities in the St. Louis area by mostly white police forces and government leaders. Both Jennings and Ferguson have largely black populations.
"The city’s modern debtors’ prison scheme has been increasingly profitable to the city of Jennings, earning millions of dollars over the past several years," one of the suits states.
"Sadly, it took the killing of Mike Brown and protesters holding us all accountable to call enough attention to the issue that St. Louis is considering meaningful reforms," said Thomas Harvey, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs.
Eleven people are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Ferguson and nine in the Jennings lawsuit. They are seeking monetary damages, a declaration that the cities violated their civil rights and an injunction to stop the practices.
Officials from Jennings and Ferguson did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The plaintiffs claim they were crowded into small jail cells without regular showers, adequate medical care or basic sanitation, and were regularly subjected to verbal abuse and taunting by jailers.
At least four people unable to pay fines have committed suicide in St. Louis-area jails in the past five months, according to plaintiffs' lawyers.
(Reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City; Editing by Will Dunham)