Debtors’ Prisons

Debtors’ prisons were outlawed in the United States over 200 years ago. In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear: Judges cannot send people to jail just because they are too poor to pay their court fines.

Despite this, many towns in St. Louis have used their police and municipal courts to arrest and jail thousands of Black people and poor people. These towns generated millions of dollars in revenue, causing countless people to lose their jobs, vehicles, time with their family, and their sense of individual liberty.

After the murder of Mike Brown, people took to the streets in the Ferguson Uprising to protest not only his killing, but also the chronic harassment and constant abuse perpetrated by the legal system.

Through our holistic legal advocacy, here are some examples of how we’ve challenged and disrupted debtors’ prisons:

Holistic Direct Services

We’ve represented clients in hundreds of courts throughout the St. Louis region and beyond, predominately on municipal ordinance violations (traffic tickets). The nefarious debtors’ prison system trapped our clients for years in a cycle of tickets, fees, debts, extortion, and cruel jailings. They’d often come to us with outstanding warrants in numerous towns.

Over the years, we’ve cleared thousands of warrants and reduced individual clients’ court fees by hundreds and thousands of dollars. While the process can take years, we restore clients’ drivers’ licenses.

In addition to the legal services, our social services team assists clients regain housing and stability from the setbacks caused by this unjust system.


Systemic Civil Rights Litigation

Between 2015 to 2018, ACD filed seven federal class action lawsuits challenging debtors’ prisons. As of December 2023, ACD and co-counsel have settled five cases totaling $12.89 million. Two cases, Fant v. Ferguson and Baker v. Florissant, are pending.

Class Action Lawsuits
Cases on Behalf of Individuals

Media & Policy Advocacy

In partnership with community members and organizations, our team engages in media and policy advocacy to frame local and national conversations on debtors’ prisons. Through centering and amplifying our clients’ voices, we expose injustice, combat misinformation, and advocate for ideas that improve the lives of people who have survived this injustice.

In addition to publishing audio, video, reports, press statements that highlight client voices, we’ve garnered earned media. Some examples include:

Video
Media

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

St. Ann settles for $3 million in ‘debtors prison’ case. Thousands could cash in.

The New York Times

Missouri City to Pay $3.25 Million to Settle ‘Debtors’ Prison’ Lawsuit

Riverfront Times

How St. Louis Debtors’ Prisons Exploit People Like Me

ArchCity Defenders

Waiting for Justice in Ferguson: Seven Years and Counting

PBS

A Debtors’ Prison | A Short Film

St. Louis American

Federal judge settles Jennings jail case, attorneys say $4.7M is ‘highest per diem payout in a debtors’ prison case to date’

VICE

Debtors’ Prisons: Life Inside America’s For-Profit Justice System (Part 1/2)

Civil Rights Attorneys Sue Ferguson Over ‘Debtors Prisons’

NPR


Community Collaborations

In 2022 and 2023, ArchCity’s staff, interns, and partners spread information about the debtors’ prison settlements, made concerted efforts to reach impacted individuals, and helped people sign up to receive the money they deserved. Click here to read about our outreach for the Normandy settlement.


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