ArchCity Defenders Files Lawsuit Against St. Clair County, Expanding Debtors’ Prison Litigation from St. Louis to Rural Missouri


February 4, 2020

Osceola, Mo. — ArchCity Defenders (ACD), a nonprofit law firm based in St. Louis filed a lawsuit in state court on behalf of George M. Richey, a 58-year-old Air Force Veteran, father and grandfather, who was illegally jailed for sixty-five days in a modern-day debtors’ prison in St. Clair County for his inability to pay jail board bills. The suit names St. Clair County, Sheriff Scott Keeler, and Associate Circuit Court Judge Jerry Rellihan as defendants, and describes how their practices have built a monetary scheme which punishes and exploits Mr. Richey and other citizens by criminalizing and jailing poor people.

“This legal system is all about money, and if you don’t have any then they will throw you in jail. I have the clothes on my back, but that’s it. This has caused me to lose everything,” said Mr. Richey. “I’m not the only one these counties are picking on, and I’m taking a stand because these crooked practices can’t continue.”

“The same kind of abuses of due process are happening at the circuit court level that we’ve seen in the St. Louis region’s municipal courts,” Special Projects Director and Co-Founder, Michael-John Voss says. “The legal system works a certain way for people with money. It works a very different way for people without money, making people poor and keeping them poor. It’s designed that way.”

After being jailed by St. Clair County for 90 days in 2015, Mr. Richey was assessed a jail board bill totaling $3,266.50, and ordered by Judge Rellihan to pay it, despite no inquiry into Mr. Richey’s ability to do so. After Mr. Richey was unable to pay, the Sheriff arrested Mr. Richey in February 2016, and he was incarcerated for another 65 days at the St. Clair County Jail. During this time, Mr. Richey was not charged or found guilty of any offense; rather, he was incarcerated solely for his inability to pay. The judge assessed an additional board bill of $2,275, and as a condition of his release, Mr. Richey had to immediately pay $750 towards his bill, and agree to pay $250 a month out of his Social Security Disability benefits.

With his limited income, Mr. Richey was soon unable to keep up and a warrant was issued for his arrest. After a years-long cycle of arrests and incarceration for his inability to pay off the jail board bill, Mr. Richey’s public defender filed a writ against the judge. In 2019, after successfully challenging the practice of forcing people to attend payment review hearings and incarcerating people for failure to pay their board bill in the Missouri Supreme Court, Mr. Richey was then sentenced by Judge Rellihan to 755 days in jail on his underlying minor charges.

This lawsuit represents ACD’s eighteenth legal challenge to modern-day debtors’ prisons in Missouri since 2015. Settling a landmark class action case in 2016 for $4.75M with the town of Jennings, MO, the nonprofit law firm continues to litigate six cases against Ferguson, Florissant, St. Ann, and other nearby municipalities in St. Louis.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 43 states have a “pay to stay” jail policy and one-third of U.S. counties charge room and board fees in local jails. For Missouri in Fiscal Year 2017, board bill disbursements totaled $4.7M, and of the state’s 114 counties. Only seven counties didn’t collect payments from people incarcerated. The St. Clair County jail, located in Osceola, collected $141,430.00 in board bills between Fiscal Years 2011 to 2017.

Located in rural western Missouri, St. Clair County has a population of approximately 9,400, and one in five people live in poverty.

A link to the lawsuit can be found here