Federal Judge: Cash Bail in St. Louis is Unconstitutional
Big Win for St. Louis Residents in Cash Bail Lawsuit Brought by ArchCity Defenders, Advancement Project National Office, Civil Rights Corps and Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection
(St. Louis, Mo.) — Today, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction requiring the City of St. Louis to give a fair bail hearing to every person arrested within 48 hours of their arrest, and a hearing within one week to all those who are currently being held in jail awaiting trial. What this means for St. Louis residents is that they no longer face sitting in jail for as many as 291 days just because they can’t make bail. Additionally, the injunction grants class certification status, expanding the plaintiffs beyond the four people who originally challenged the constitutionality of the city’s cash bail system.
Today’s ruling confirms that the City has violated the rights of hundreds of people, who have been detained before trial at one of the City’s two jails–the Justice Center and the Medium Security Institution, also known as the Workhouse–solely because they are unable to pay money bail. It further notes that the mere fact that the Missouri Supreme Court has issued new rules on bail hearings, effective July 1, is not enough to guarantee they will be followed.
This decision comes one day before a Wednesday 1:00 pm CT press conference and public action at City Hall where Ben Cohen, co-founder of ice cream giant Ben & Jerry’s, will make a public announcement to close the Workhouse jail. He will be joined by Close the Workhouse campaign members and urge residents to demand Mayor Lyda Krewson and the Board of Alders shut down the jail where scores of legally innocent St. Louisans are currently housed, costing the City $16 million a year. A second, still pending jail conditions lawsuit filed in 2017 by ArchCity Defenders calls the Workhouse jail deplorable and inhumane.
In January 2019, ArchCity Defenders, Advancement Project National Office, Civil Rights Corps and Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) filed a federal lawsuit challenging as unconstitutional the cash bail system in the City of St. Louis. Brought on behalf of David Dixon and three additional plaintiffs who were denied fair bail hearings, the suit exposed the City’s scheme of imposing unaffordable bail amounts as a means of jailing people awaiting their day in court. On June 11, a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction in favor of the plaintiffs, prohibiting this practice and ruling that people who have been arrested in the city must be given fair hearings at which the court must consider the person’s ability to pay.
“At this very moment, there are hundreds of people detained in the City of St. Louis merely because of their poverty. Today’s decision to grant a preliminary injunction is a critical first step in ending the current status quo of wealth-based detention. We are encouraged that the judge recognized the enormous human cost of the unconstitutional cash bail scheme in the City’s courts, and we are hopeful that this change in St. Louis’s pretrial detention policies will spare countless people unnecessary suffering now and in the future,” said Blake Strode, Executive Director of ArchCity Defenders.
“Today’s ruling sends a clear message to the City of St. Louis, the judges in the 22nd Circuit Court, and the jail commissioner: poor people cannot be held in jail because of their inability to make a cash payment to buy their freedom,” said Thomas B. Harvey, Justice Project Director and Senior Staff Attorney of Advancement Project National Office. “The City has operated this racist and predatory scheme for decades and cavalierly destroyed the lives of countless thousands of people, disproportionately impacted Black people, and not made St. Louis safer. This is the first step in ending wealth-based pretrial detention and closing the Workhouse permanently.”
“This decision confirms what we already knew – the money bail system in St. Louis is flagrantly unconstitutional,” said Alec Karakatsanis, Founder and Executive Director of Civil Rights Corps. “The ruling today is a victory not just for our plaintiffs in the lawsuit, but for the thousands of poor people illegally confined to jail cells in the Workhouse because they cannot pay for their release. The number of people affected by this brutal system is larger than we can technically count, and the judge today affirmed that they deserve to be heard and that their rights matter, even in the assembly line bureaucracy that our punishment system has become.”
“We are pleased that Judge Fleissig recognized the obviously unconstitutional practice of detaining people before trial–and before any finding of guilt–solely because they cannot afford to pay money bail, while releasing those who can,” said Mary McCord, senior litigator at ICAP and professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center.
A link to the preliminary injunction can be found here.
The experiences of the four named plaintiffs — David Dixon, Aaron Thurman, Jeffrey Rozelle and Richard Robards — shed light on how St. Louis City’s cash bail scheme renders poor residents powerless in court and condemns them to suffer the hellish conditions of the Workhouse, a local jail with a long history of abusive behavior by guards and inadequate medical care. Instead of inquiring into their ability to pay or performing a needs assessment to determine what supports may help them get back to court, judges use money bail as a proxy for freedom. The lawsuit exposed the practice of judges in the city failing to allow people to say if they can pay money bail and failing to consider alternatives to money bail, leading to de facto preventive detention without constitutional safeguards. In addition, not only are bail amounts higher in St. Louis than the national average, judges set bail solely based on police reports and allegations made by police. This unconstitutional scheme leads to the systematic jailing of presumptively innocent people solely because they are impoverished.
A link to the original lawsuit can be found here.