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It's been six months since a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, an event that put relations between law enforcement and African-Americans under intense scrutiny. Now a group of lawyers is suing Ferguson and nearby Jennings over an issue that's been a source of ongoing tension in those communities - arresting people when they say that they're too poor to pay their court fees and keeping them, sometimes for weeks at a time, in dirty, overcrowded jail cells. NPR's Joseph Shapiro talked to some of the plaintiffs.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Their stories show how court fines and fees can grow and turn an impoverished person's life upside down. Edward Brown is homeless. He slept the night before at this bus stop. The temperature was 17 degrees.
EDWARD BROWN: It's so cold I can't really move, so I kept playing with my feet, rubbing them and twisting them and trying to keep them warm.
SHAPIRO: The bus stop is in front of the City Hall for Jennings. Brown's troubles started when he tried to fight City Hall. The city wanted to condemn the small, crumbling house where he had lived for 25 years. When he injured his back and was bedridden and couldn't push the mower, he got a citation for letting the grass grow too high. When he stayed in the house after it was condemned, he got a citation for trespassing.
BROWN: Yeah, I went to jail for that.
SHAPIRO: He owed the city $464. He lives on his $488 Social Security check and food stamps. So he didn't pay his fines. As a result, he's gone to jail several times - once for 30 days, once for 20. Brown is 62. And even though he's homeless, he keeps his clothes clean, his gray beard neatly trimmed. He looks bookish in wire-rim glasses. But in prison, the lawsuit says he wasn't given his medicine or a toothbrush or toothpaste, that, even over those long jail stays, he never got a shower. He says he can manage better on the streets than when he was incarcerated.
BROWN: I manage better outside, OK, as a homeless man than when I was incarcerated.
SHAPIRO: The lawsuit cites unsanitary jail conditions. Michael John Voss, an attorney with ArchCity Defenders, one of the three groups that sued, says those conditions violate the rights of people when they go from court to jail.
MICHAEL JOHN VOSS: As they walk past you, in the hallway, down to the jail, the body odor is so strong because of the lack of bath, that a court clerk walks down the hallway with a can of Febreze and clears the air out every time.
SAMANTHA JENKINS: What color is your umbrella?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Red.
SHAPIRO: Samantha Jenkins is 47 and lives with her two young grandchildren.
JENKINS: They love their granny.
SHAPIRO: It was a milestone day for Jenkins last week. Her parole, with Missouri State Corrections, ended. After years of addiction to crack cocaine, she's sober now. She's got a job interview set up. But even though her felony charges are over, she can't shake one last problem. She owes unpaid fines to the city of Jennings from when she got caught stealing three steaks from a grocery store some 14 years ago. She's already spent weeks in jail for not paying those fines, but the lawsuit says she still owes the city about $1,500.
JENKINS: It just made me feel like I'm never going to get out of this.
SHAPIRO: She knows police could stop her and take her back to the city jail.
JENKINS: It made me feel sad, depressed, hopeless, helpless, like I can't win for losing. It's like how am I ever going to get my life back together when I got this keep holding, holding me back?
SHAPIRO: The lawsuits claim that the cities of Ferguson and Jennings violate the rights of poor residents by jailing them without first considering whether they are too impoverished to pay court fines and by not offering alternatives like lower payment plans or the chance to work off fines with community service. Those cities, unlike others nearby, don't let jail time erase unpaid fines. Officials in Ferguson and Jennings did not respond to requests for comments, but there have been some steps to reducing fines and fees there. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.
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