ST. LOUIS (AP) — Federal lawsuits allege that jails in the St. Louis County towns of Ferguson and Jennings operate essentially as modern-day debtors' prisons, where minor traffic offenses can lead to extended periods behind bars.
Two lawsuits were filed Sunday on behalf of people who have spent time in jail for failure to pay fines for traffic violations and minor offenses. The suits representing 11 people jailed in Ferguson and nine in Jennings were filed by the nonprofit Equal Justice Under Law of Washington, the St. Louis nonprofit ArchCity Defenders, and Saint Louis University School of Law.
New concerns about the treatment of poor people in the St. Louis region were raised after the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer in August. Part of that resentment was aimed at traffic court.
"Because they generate so much revenue, many towns in our region attempt to squeeze every dollar possible out of defendants and their families by jailing citizens who are not criminals, and who are not a threat to society," Thomas Harvey, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, said in a statement.
The suits, which allege that Ferguson and Jennings have made millions of dollars through traffic court fines, seek unspecified damages and injunctions to keep the neighboring towns in north St. Louis County from jailing people who are unable to pay the fines.
St. Louis County's jumble of more than 80 municipal courts has been targeted by some who say the courts extract fines and fees from poor drivers and use the money to fund local governments, which in some cases serve just a few hundred residents.
The city of Ferguson disputed the accuracy of allegations in the lawsuits, and said no one "in any specific economic group" was targeted for unfair treatment.
"We believe this lawsuit is disturbing because it contains allegations that are not based on objective facts," Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III said in a statement released by the city. He had told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that profit "was not a motive" for Ferguson courts.
Officials in Jennings did not immediately return messages seeking comment Monday.
The lawsuits claim that those jailed were held indefinitely; were not provided with attorneys; and were kept in unsanitary conditions without adequate medical care. The suits claim that at least four people unable to pay for their freedom have committed suicide in jail in the past five months.
In its statement, Ferguson disputed that those jailed were abused in any way, that people were routinely held longer than three straight days, or that the jail was not clean.
Last year, both St. Louis city and county offered amnesty programs aimed at helping those unable to pay fines to avoid jail time, but few people participated. St. Louis city spokeswoman Maggie Crane said people can, at any time, reschedule court dates. She said city courts also offer payment plans or community service for those who cannot afford to pay.