Michael-John Voss

Where are you from?

I was born in West Virginia to Midwestern parents, but moved around for most of my youth; settling in Chicago for a number of years before heading to St. Louis.

When did you join ArchCity Defenders? Why?

As a Co-Founder, I’ve been around from even before it was a thing. We started ArchCity Defenders because of our experiences in the clinics at law school. What we saw was a stark difference between what we believed to be Justice and what was happening in our courts. We saw how the system fails those who are the most vulnerable and how it exacerbates poverty and community violence.

What is your background (work and education)?

I went to undergrad at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, getting degrees in Photography and Art History, focusing on East Asian Arts and Culture. I then lived in Taiwan, teaching English and studying Chinese. In 2002, I returned to the States and received a Masters in Library and Information Science and then worked as a reference librarian at Chicago Public Library. In 2009, I graduated from Saint Louis University School of Law and Co-Founded ArchCity Defenders.

What do you do at ArchCity Defenders?

A bit of everything. As special projects director, I am working on systemic litigation representing poor people in rural Missouri. In the fall of 2014, after the Ferguson uprising, which brought the attention of the world to the inequality and racial injustice happening in our region’s legal system, we endeavored to attack that system through class-wide federal civil rights litigation, ending the mass incarceration of those locked up simply because of their poverty. That work has changed St. Louis area municipal court practices and dramatically reduced revenue generated by a policing-for-profit model. We now seek to expand that work into rural areas in Missouri. The sad reality in Missouri’s rural counties is that if you’re poor and find yourself in contact with the legal system, you will likely be incarcerated because of your poverty. If you do time in jail because you can’t afford bail, even on minor offenses, you then get a bill for your jail time. In most Missouri counties, more than 48% of the people in jail are there on nonviolent offenses. If and when you get released, you find yourself in outstanding debt. The problem is not just that the rural counties are charging people for being in jail, it is that they are treating that jail debt as a “fine” and using the county’s arrest power when people cannot afford to pay the debt.

What words would you use to describe ArchCity Defenders?

Persistent, innovative, radical, woke.

Favorite client memory/win you’ve had?

Sharing a glass of champagne with a client and the team to celebrate her getting her licensure back after a decade of fighting in both the civil and criminal courts.

Fun/personal fact you want to share.

Father of twins who are as old as this organization!