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Ferguson Residents Challenge “Modern Debtors’ Prison Scheme” Targeting Blacks with Fines, Arrests

StoryFebruary 10, 2015
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Monday marked six months since a white police officer killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The shooting sparked protests over Brown’s death and the broader racial divide it came to symbolize. Now, half a year later, a major legal action is taking that divide head-on. On Sunday, more than a dozen St. Louis-area residents filed class-action lawsuits against Ferguson and another suburb, Jennings. The residents accuse local officials of creating a “modern debtors’ prison scheme” that targets African Americans with arrests and fines and then locks them up when they cannot pay. A study last year by the ArchCity Defenders found a large part of the revenue for several St. Louis counties comes from fines paid by African-American residents disproportionately targeted for traffic stops and other low-level offenses. In Ferguson, fines and fees were the city’s second-largest source of income in fiscal year 2014. Ferguson issued on average nearly three warrants per household last year — the highest number of warrants in the state, relative to its size. We speak to Michael-John Voss, managing attorney at ArchCity Defenders, one of the groups that has filed a lawsuit against Ferguson and Jennings. We are also joined by Allison Nelson and Herbert Nelson Jr., two of the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuits.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: Monday marked six months since a white police officer killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The shooting sparked protests over Brown’s death and the broader racial divide it came to symbolize. Now, half a year later, a major legal action is taking that divide head-on. On Sunday, more than a dozen St. Louis-area residents filed class-action lawsuits against Ferguson and another suburb, Jennings. The residents accuse local officials of creating a, quote, “modern debtors’ prison scheme” that targets African Americans with arrests and fines and then locks them up when they can’t pay. This is how one resident, George Fields, described it to Democracy Now! in August. He was speaking outside of Michael Brown’s funeral.

GEORGE FIELDS: I’m George Fields, and I’m here for Mike Brown, and mostly for all black men walking down the streets stuck here, not being able to go out in the county, seriously, sir, because we’re like—city is a little more lenient with ticket values and stuff, and we have just been ticketed over much over there, and then it leads to other crimes, you know. And a ticket costs you 50 cents—I mean, $50 a ticket, right? But you have to pay bond. You have to be in jail three days and stuff and like that. It’s just too much.

And in past Goodfellow city line, they tow your car automatically, you know. So they don’t have no leniency in the county with the county police at all, for real. If you check the records, everybody that pass Goodfellow here at the city line get pulled over automatically. And then it’s just a kind of push-off against—you know, systematically against blacks, for real. If you look at the statistics, it shows you. It’s just a little too much when you get pulled over for menial things. You have to go through too much to get out, and you lose your jobs and whatnot, you know, for a $50 ticket and pull-over.

You cannot go in the county. I’m fearful of the county. I’ve been stuck here in the city for six or seven years because the county has been that bad. My kids stay in the county. I can’t see them. I’ve got to sneak to see my kids. I have to sneak to see my kids, because my plate might be bad or something. You know, I’m poor, and I’m trying to drive around to get better. But, you know, they won’t ticket you; they just take your stuff, immediately. You know, if you take it, their tow thing is ready, you know, every time.

AMY GOODMAN: That was George Fields, one of the St. Louis-area residents who attended Michael Brown’s funeral, speaking right before he stepped into the church.

Well, a study last year by the ArchCity Defenders found a large part of the revenue for several St. Louis counties comes from fines paid by African-American residents disproportionately targeted for traffic stops and other low-level offenses. In Ferguson, fines and fees were the city’s second-largest source of income in the fiscal year 2014. Ferguson issued on average nearly three warrants per household last year—the highest number of warrants in the state, relative to its size.

The targeting may have had deadly consequences. According to the new class-action lawsuit, four area residents unable to buy their freedom have committed suicide in local jails in the past five months. Others allege indefinite detention and various denials of due process. The suit claims the debtors’ scheme has, quote, “devastated the City’s poor, trapping them for years in a cycle of increased fees, debts, extortion, and cruel jailings.” The plaintiffs want an end to the targeting as well as compensation for its victims.

Well, we’re joined in St. Louis by three guests. Michael-John Voss is the managing attorney at ArchCity Defenders, which is one of the groups that’s filed a lawsuit accusing two St. Louis suburbs, Ferguson and Jennings, of creating these illegal debtors’ prisons. And we’re joined by Allison and Herbert Nelson Jr., two of the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuits. Allison and Herbert are brother and sister.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Why don’t we begin with Michael-John Voss. Explain how this system works.

MICHAEL-JOHN VOSS: So, what we have in St. Louis, in the municipalities in St. Louis County, is a modern debtors’ prison. Basically, our study, the white paper that you referred to earlier, showed that individuals who are African-American are disproportionately targeted by police in the municipalities, as well as they are also exploited because of their financial inability to pay certain fines and costs related to that traffic stop, that traffic violation. And so, what happens is, an individual then is forced to pay an exorbitant amount of money relative to the charge that they’re facing. And then they are, if they don’t have that ability to pay, they’re actually—no inquiry is made as to that ability or not, and a warrant is issued for their arrest, and then they become incarcerated. It’s sometimes for days, for weeks, without any looking into their financial ability to pay, and actually without even having a clear sense of whether or not they have any sort of specific amount that they would be able to pay to get out of jail. And so, it’s arbitrarily they are being detained in St. Louis County in these municipal jails.

AARON MATÉ: And talk about this lawsuit that you filed, how it was put together and what it’s seeking to accomplish.

MICHAEL-JOHN VOSS: So, the lawsuit that we filed, we’re working with an organization called Equal Justice Under Law out of Washington, D.C., and the St. Louis University School of Law clinics. And basically, by interviewing and talking with many individuals who had gone through these experiences, we were able to take down a number of stories of individuals. And we’ve then investigated the sort of practices of the courts, through court-watching project, and then put together this lawsuit. It is a class-action lawsuit seeking injunctive relief, an end to these practices, and also seeking damages for the individuals that have suffered under this system.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael-John Voss, how many suicides have there been in the jails just in the last five months?

MICHAEL-JOHN VOSS: Well, just in the last five months—within the last few years, there’s been at least four recorded deaths. There’s been also attempted suicides that we also have documentation of through news reports. There was a story of a young man, 18 years old, who clearly needed mental health treatment, but none of that was provided to him. And while he was in Jennings municipal court jail, he committed suicide.

And so, the conditions are deplorable. The conditions that we outline in our—in the lawsuit show that individuals are not—sometimes there’s seven to 10 people in a cell—excuse me, over 12 people in a jail cell that’s supposed to house just eight. They’re not given enough blankets to keep warm. There’s no washing of those blankets. They’re not permitted to take showers. I’ve been, as a lawyer, practicing in the municipal courts for a number of years, and I’ve been in a hallway in Jennings after they take people out of the confined docket, of which they don’t allow any public access to. The inmates are brought down a hallway and down into the jail. I’ve been waiting in that hallway to speak with a prosecutor. And immediately after all of the individuals that are brought down into the jail file through, a court clerk comes through with a can of aerosol to remove the stench, because nobody has taken a bath, because they’re not provided a shower for weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: Allison Nelson, explain what happened to you.

ALLISON NELSON: Well, there were multiple occasions where I was incarcerated by Jennings and Ferguson. But just my recent one, it was Thanksgiving. It was three days before Thanksgiving. I was incarcerated, and it’s a Jennings jail cell. I had been there for three days. And once I left Jennings—well, they negotiated with my mother over the phone to reduce my bond from $1,000 to $100. And then, once they reduced the bond, then I was then transferred to a Ferguson jail cell Thanksgiving morning at around 3:00 a.m. And I sat there for a few hours, and then, once they had a shift change and the other CO came in, the correctional officer came in, I guess he was in a good mood Thanksgiving morning, because he came in, called out a list of names, and he was just like, “OK”—at the time, my bond was $700, and he was just like, “Oh, if you could come up with $100, then you could go home.” So then we weren’t given free phone calls at all, so I had to call my mother on the collect phone. And when you’re supposed to speak your name, I had to yell through the phone that, “Oh, they’re giving me a $100 bond, come and get me.” So, it was—

AMY GOODMAN: What were you charged with, Allison?

ALLISON NELSON: I was charged with—what was I—it was driving—

MICHAEL-JOHN VOSS: Driving while suspended.

ALLISON NELSON: It was driving while suspended. Yeah, it was driving while suspended. And that’s been the only choice that I’ve had.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain the first time you were approached by police? You were in a car in your own backyard?

ALLISON NELSON: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: You weren’t driving?

ALLISON NELSON: No, I was in the driver seat of the car. I was just sitting in the backyard. I had on my nightgown and everything. And they came up in the backyard. And as I was walking into the house, he was just like, “Freeze, stop.” And he asked for my name. You know, I gave him my name. And then they immediately took me to jail in my nightgown, did not have no time—they did not give me any time to put on no clothes. And then, once I was transferred—once I went to Jennings and then transferred to Ferguson, then they then let my mother bring me some clothes.

AMY GOODMAN: But you were sitting in your car in your backyard?

ALLISON NELSON: Yes, in the backyard.

AMY GOODMAN: What did they charge you with?

ALLISON NELSON: Oh, they charged me with driving while suspended.

MICHAEL-JOHN VOSS: So it’s an outstanding warrant for that prior charge of driving while suspended.

ALLISON NELSON: Yeah.

AARON MATÉ: And, Herbert Nelson, the suit alleges that you’ve suffered some medical conditions as a result of your treatment. Tell us your story.

HERBERT NELSON JR.: Yes. I’ve been arrested multiple times, too. But the last couple times, I’ve been arrested on my way to work, with no regards to that. They just arrested me, don’t occur that I’m in uniform. And I’m a painter, so I have a very stiff uniform. And I was in—and the last time I was arrested, I was arrested for close to a week, without no medical attention, and I had an infection that was caused from being jailed previously, and the infection just never went away. And they didn’t give me any attention regarding my medical condition at all at Jennings or Ferguson, and it just got worse and worse. And they really stopped me from going to work. And they’ve done that multiple times, and with no regard to me having a job, not trying to let me out earlier to get to work or anything like that. So I lost a lot through this.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, your mother, Tonya DeBerry, has also had problems with police around traffic violations?

HERBERT NELSON JR.: Yes.

ALLISON NELSON: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened to her.

HERBERT NELSON JR.: She has been arrested illegally before. And we have to come up with the money. She usually comes up with the money for us. Now, with her, on the other hand, when she’s arrested, it’s even harder for us to come up with the money for our mother, because we don’t have the resources that she has. So, when she’s in jail, she’s been in jail for a lot longer than we have.

MICHAEL-JOHN VOSS: Ms. DeBerry lives on a fixed income, and so the ability to make a payment, an exorbitant amount of money that these courts are demanding for her to be released, is very difficult for them to do. In addition to that, there’s no judicial finding as to whether or not people have the ability to pay these fines and costs. And so, typically, people will be incarcerated, like Ms. DeBerry was, for weeks at a time without ever going in front of a judge to have an actual judicial determination made as to whether or not they are indigent or not.

AARON MATÉ: And, Michael-John Voss, the structural issues here, nearly three arrest warrants per household in Ferguson, and then using these fines to basically pay for the city services, can you talk about that?

MICHAEL-JOHN VOSS: Right. So, what you see with a number of municipalities in North County, and Ferguson especially, is this wedding of the need to generate revenue for the municipality with the administration of justice. And so, there’s a financial incentive here for these practices to continue for the municipality to continue to run and function. And what we need to have is a divorce between those two things. The need to generate revenue for the municipality needs to be divorced from the administration of justice in these county municipalities.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Allison Nelson, you were 18 when you first got one of these violations and you were put in jail, and now you’re 23. How many times have they put you in jail for, for example, sitting in your car, which is stationary, which is still in your backyard?

ALLISON NELSON: Well, that was the only time that I had been sitting in a nonmoving vehicle and I was arrested. The other times, I was the passenger in the car. So, yeah, it’s been like only a couple times where I have actually been driving, and they pulled me over and was like, “Oh, you have an outstanding warrant for driving with a suspended license,” or whatever the case may be. But any other time, I have been the passenger in a car, or the car was not moving at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Herbert, how does this make you feel about the police?

HERBERT NELSON JR.: That’s a good question, because the last time I was arrested, the officer said I shouldn’t be afraid of officers. But that same officer, he actually—he was like, “Yes!” He was so excited to arrest me. And that alone made me afraid, because a lot of my friends and family won’t even come to see me because I live in Jennings. They’re scared to come into the county of North St. Louis, North County St. Louis, because of the police and how quick they are to arrest you over a minor, minor, minor traffic ticket.

AARON MATÉ: Herbert, when we were there, there was some hope among some residents that we spoke to that things might get better in the aftermath of these protests, of this organizing in Ferguson and the surrounding areas. Has anything improved in the six months since Michael Brown was killed?

HERBERT NELSON JR.: Far as the policing, no, it hasn’t. It hasn’t. And I wouldn’t honestly say it improved. No, actually, it began—it got worse, because it seems like the crime has went up, and the police are really—the jails are just running in an out, like they’re way more packed than they were before Mike Brown was shot. The jails are way more packed. So it hasn’t improved at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us. We’ll certainly link to the information about this. Michael-John Voss, managing attorney at ArchCity Defenders; Allison and Herbert Nelson Jr., plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuits.

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