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Thirteen cities in St. Louis County, Mo., are accused in a new class-action lawsuit of jailing poor people who can't afford to pay their court fines. These are fines for minor offenses, including traffic tickets. The suit alleges that the cities are ticketing poor black people to raise money to fund their governments. Thomas Harvey is an executive director of Arch City Defenders. That's the group leading this suit. I asked him why he describes the situation in Missouri as a full-on debtors' prison.
THOMAS HARVEY: People are arrested and thrown into a cage. They're told by their jailer that they owe a certain dollar amount. Say it's $300. They ask you for the money. And if you can't pay it, they sometimes release you three days later, after they reduce the dollar amount. They negotiate with you, haggle with you until they find a squeal point where you can make bail and let you out. They don't take them before a judge. They're not given a lawyer. They are negotiating their bond with the person who has the keys to the jailhouse door.
CORNISH: Tell us about your lead plaintiff.
HARVEY: Quinton Thomas - 28-year-old guy. He's been working in St. Louis as a driver. He had an unpaid traffic ticket. He was arrested on that ticket, lost his driver's license. He lost his job. His whole life has been devastated. He's never had a misdemeanor offense. He's never had a felony offense. His only contact with the legal system is as a result of traffic violations.
CORNISH: Last month, the community of Jennings nearby settled a similar suit. And they've since made some changes to their municipal court system. Can you describe what those changes look like and whether it could be a blueprint for other places? Like, what would be an ideal situation?
HARVEY: Absolutely. The city of Jennings should be commended for the work that they did. When we filed our lawsuit, they immediately entered into negotiations to settle the suit. Within seven months, we'd reached an agreement for them to change, in wholesale fashion, the practices and procedures in their municipal court. So they no longer issue warrants for people who failed to pay in their court.
The step to issuing a warrant for the failure to appear is now a four-step process, which includes a phone call to the person, a letter to the person. The practice previously was to assess a fine regardless of a person's income and then put that person on a payment docket. If they were unable to make the payment in full, they had to come back every month and explain to the judge why they didn't have their full payment.
Now, Jennings assesses the fine, includes an analysis of whether or not the person has the ability to pay, offers a possibility of reducing the fines if the person is indigent, also offers the availability of community service and, furthermore, gives people six months to complete either full payment or community service.
CORNISH: These suits are in Missouri communities, but reporting here at NPR has found that, since the recession, 48 states have increased criminal and civil court fees, that people are being charged for all kinds of things, whether it's their public defender or just room and board for jail. How difficult is it for advocates such as yourself to basically reverse a trend?
HARVEY: Here's the bottom line - if you - if we take the people who are imposing these fines and issuing these citations at face value, take them in good faith that what they're really concerned about is public safety, they're make - it doesn't make any sense to fine an indigent person in order to get them to come into compliance with the law. They are literally unable to comply with the law. So adding additional fines on their already-impoverished situation doesn't do anything to increase public safety. If anything, it decreases public safety because you have a complete erosion of trust between communities of color and law enforcement.
CORNISH: Thomas Harvey is executive director of Arch City Defenders. Thank you for speaking with us.
HARVEY: Thank you.
CORNISH: And NPR attempted to reach out to the 13 cities being sued. Some did not respond to us. Those that did refused to comment.
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