DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And let's hear about another call for reform in Ferguson, Miss. Some believe too many people there are thrown in jail for not paying court fines and fees. Often the fines are because of unpaid traffic tickets. NPR got an advanced look at a lawsuit which was filed late last night. NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Ronnie Tucker says when police in Ferguson stopped him for speeding, he didn't have a current driver's license. He says the tickets added up to hundreds of dollars, more than he could afford.
RONNIE TUCKER: Because I was not working at the time, I received food stamps.
SHAPIRO: When he didn't pay and then didn't go to court when he was summoned, the city issued a warrant for his arrest. In May of 2013, he was taken to the Ferguson jail. Tucker thinks that was disproportionate given the nature of his offense.
TUCKER: They treated me like I murdered somebody, you know, like I went out there and robbed a bank. I had a parking ticket - not a parking ticket, a speeding ticket, a misdemeanor of driving without a driving license.
SHAPIRO: He says the jail cell was overcrowded and filthy.
TUCKER: So when I get caught, I had to sit in jail for, like, 14 or 15 days with no shower, no change of clothes, dirty cells. We've been treated like dogs.
SHAPIRO: Tucker is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed last night by civil rights lawyers. The lawsuit alleges that Ferguson and the nearby town of Jennings violate the Constitution because they jail people without adequately considering whether they had the ability to pay and then don't offer the poor proper alternatives, like doing community service instead.
THOMAS HARVEY: They routinely failed to make the inquiry into someone's ability to pay even when it's required by law.
SHAPIRO: Thomas Harvey is a lawyer with ArchCity Defenders, one of the three groups that brought the lawsuit.
HARVEY: At the very moment, anyone says, I can't afford this, I'm on Section 8, I have lived in a homeless shelter, that is raising the issue of indigency before the court and it's required at that moment for the court to continue that inquiry and then not continue to incarcerate someone if they've raised that issue of indigency.
SHAPIRO: At issue is the way Ferguson and nearby municipalities in St. Lewis County get a large part of their revenue from the fines on low-level offenses, for Ferguson in 2013, about 21 percent. Last year, NPR's investigative series Guilty and Charged reported on places across America that jail people who say they can't afford court fines and fees. Alex Karakatsanis of Equal Justice Under Law is another attorney in the Ferguson suit.
ALEX KARAKATSANIS: So we've seen the rise of modern American debtors' prisons and nowhere is that phenomenon more stark than in the Ferguson and Jennings municipal courts and municipal jails. We have people languishing in grotesque conditions solely because of their poverty.
SHAPIRO: Police officials in Ferguson did not respond to requests for comment. But the city council recently limited how much will be collected on court fines and offered an amnesty on some arrest warrants. There are more court reform proposals from local judges and state lawmakers. City officials say traffic fines protect public safety, and they need to punish the many people who can pay but simply refuse.
In 2013, Ferguson, a city of 21,000, issued nearly 33,000 arrest warrants on unpaid traffic violations and other minor offenses. Many of those were for people who live outside the city, like Tonya DeBerry, who lives on a disability check and is another plaintiff in the lawsuit. Just over a year ago, she was driving her 4-year-old grandson in someone else's car. A St. Louis County police officer saw that the license plates were expired and pulled her over. He ran a check and saw an arrest warrant for multiple unpaid traffic tickets in Ferguson.
TONYA DEBERRY: Just traffic tickets, no criminal act, nothing. Just traffic tickets. If you have the money, you would never go through that type of situation. If you don't have the money it's jail, jail.
SHAPIRO: DeBerry says she spent two days in jail in Ferguson before her daughter arrived with $300 borrowed from a neighbor. But that was just for the bond to get her out of jail. She says she still owes over $1,000 on those unpaid tickets and still worries that she could be picked up and go back to jail. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.
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