Ferguson, Mo., lawsuit exposes debtors’
prisons for traffic tickets
BY BRIAN WILLIAMS
Six months after Michael Brown was killed by cop Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, and after ongoing protests spread nationwide over police abuse there, a class-action lawsuit was filed Feb. 8 in federal court challenging city rulers’ practice of jailing low-income workers for outstanding traffic tickets or other infractions and the subhuman conditions they’re subjected to while incarcerated.
“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,” the suit says. “It has also devastated the City’s poor, trapping them for years in a cycle of increased fees, debts, extortion, and cruel jailings.” The suit seeks damages and an injunction against these practices.
The suit was filed on behalf of 11 plaintiffs by Equal Justice Under Law, ArchCity Defenders and St. Louis University School of Law. A similar lawsuit was filed against nearby Jennings, Missouri.
Last year cops and courts in Ferguson, a city of 21,000 residents, two-thirds of whom are African-American, issued more than 3.6 arrest warrants per household, nearly 2.2 warrants for every single adult. Most were in cases involving unpaid debt for tickets. Court fines and fees have become Ferguson’s second-largest source of income, netting the city $2.6 million in 2013.
“They’re robbing us blind,” Markese Mull, a friend of Brown’s family in Ferguson, told the Militant in a phone interview Feb. 23. “They’ll ticket you for a $10 traffic violation and then tack on $100 in warrant delivery fees and another $100 in court costs.
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