The U.S. Supreme Court ruled nearly 50 years ago that a person cannot be jailed for not being able to pay a fine, but the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, apparently didn’t get the memo.
Thousands of people are currently pursuing a federal class action lawsuit filed in 2015 against the Feguson, which gained notoriety after the 2014 killing of Michael Brown by police, for jailing them due to their inability to pay minor outstanding traffic tickets. Critics call Ferguson’s tactic of cycling people through a succession of jails for not being able to pay their fines a modern day “debtors’ prison” used by judges-turned-tax-collectors to keep fines flowing into the impoverished city’s coffers – making traffic tickets a major source of revenue.
According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs in the case endured “grotesque treatment” while being held in overcrowded cells, where they are denied access to toothbrushes, toothpaste and soap; surrounded by the stench of excrement and refuse; and deprived of vital medical care and prescription medication, even when their families begged to bring their medicine to them. But perhaps worst of all, they had no idea when or if they would be allowed to leave.
Until the mid 19th century, debtors’ prisons were a common way to deal with those who were unable to pay their debt, particularly throughout Western Europe and even in colonial America. During the Middle Ages, men and women were commonly locked up together in large cells and held there until their families paid off the debt, which often took extended periods of time. Some debtors became serfs or indentured servants and were forced to perform labor to pay off what they owed.
Many people don’t realize that modern day debtors’ prisons still exist, at least in practice. Ferguson issued an average of more than 3.6 arrest warrants per household in 2014 – nearly 2.2 arrests per adult, mostly in cases involving unpaid traffic tickets. In fact, Ferguson issues more arrest warrants per capita than any other Missouri city with 10,000 or more residents. The complaint alleges that this “debtors’ prison scheme” has netted Ferguson millions of dollars over the past several years while essentially holding the city’s poor ransom, trapping them “in a cycle of increased fees, debts, extortion, and cruel jailings.”
After the lawsuit was filed, the city filed a series of motions calling for its dismissal (without success), and due in large part to media scrutiny, Ferguson has slowly stopped its practice of jailing people for not being able to pay fines. But thousands of plaintiffs – mostly poor black citizens – are still waiting for justice.
It appears to be extremely difficult to hold authorities in Ferguson accountable for questionable law enforcement practices. In 2016, Jennings, Mo. (a town near Ferguson) agreed to pay $4.7 million to about 2,000 mostly poor, black residents the city had jailed for unpaid tickets, but that might be just the tip of the iceberg.
According to Thomas B. Harvey, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the Jennings case, “[T] here are 90 cities surrounding Jennings and Ferguson. Until all of them change their practices either voluntarily or as the result of legislation or litigation . . . this is still going to be a region that over-polices for revenue and criminalizes black life.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger, who won a Pulitzer Prize earlier this year for his commentary on debtors’ prisons in Missouri, said this of the practice: “It’s policing on the poor, it’s jurisdictions that don’t have a tax base anymore looking to the judicial system as a fundraising tool and judges allowing themselves to be tax collectors rather than purveyors of justice.”
But the criminalization of private debt in Missouri might finally be a thing of the past. In July 2019, Missouri Governor Mike Parson signed a bill banning modern-day debtors’ prisons into law. As a result, Missouri counties are now allowed to collect debt only through civil means, with no threat of jail time.