Lawsuit Filed to Challenge St. Louis City’s Unconstitutional Cash Bail System
ST. LOUIS, MO — Today in federal court, ArchCity Defenders, Advancement Project National Office, Civil Rights Corps, and Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) filed a lawsuit against the City of St. Louis, Sheriff Vernon Betts, judges of the 22nd Judicial Circuit, and Commissioner of Corrections Dale Glass to challenge St. Louis’s unconstitutional cash bail system and demand the release of all named plaintiffs in the class action suit. This suit is part of national campaign to end pretrial detention and permanently shutter jails and prisons around the country. A press conference was held today at 2pm CST, at Deaconess Center for Child Well-Being where co-counsel were joined by advocates leading the Close the Workhouse campaign.
“For years, St. Louis City’s poor, and majority Black, residents have been denied their right to pretrial liberty due to an unconstitutional bail system and it’s time to correct this injustice,” said Blake Strode, Executive Director of ArchCity Defenders. “A presumptively innocent person is caged in the Workhouse on average 291 days because they simply cannot afford bail. This is time missed from work, school, family that is lost forever. The collateral consequences are devastating. Loss of wages or the loss of one’s job altogether; the inability to care for loved ones and the possibility of children going into the foster care system; and the race disparity impacting our city’s Black population is unforgivable. This is illegal, unjust and the city – and the nation needs to be put on notice that lives are at stake.”
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. Judges do not allow people to say if they can pay the bond or ask about alternatives to cash bail, leading to a 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.
“We are attacking the City of St. Louis’ illegal procedures used to jail more than 1,000 people solely because of their inability to make a cash payment to purchase their freedom,” said Thomas Harvey, Senior Attorney and Justice Project Program Director for Advancement Project National Office. “About 95 percent of people locked in the city of St. Louis’ cages are held there because of cash bail. There are eight times as many Black detainees as White detainees in the jail, even though the Black population makes up only 47 percent of the City of St. Louis.
“We are attacking the City of St. Louis’ illegal procedures used to jail more than 1,000 people solely because of their inability to make a cash payment to purchase their freedom.”
By challenging the overtly illegal policies and practices that lead to so many poor and Black St. Louis residents losing their freedom, our lawsuit supports the goals of the Close the Workhouse campaign and ultimately lead to policy change that will reduce the jail’s population enough that it can be closed permanently and the money used to fund it is reinvested in the most impacted communities,” continued Harvey. “Advancement Project National Office is involved to support our grassroots partners in St. Louis and participate in the national movement to end pretrial detention and end the country’s reliance on incarceration.”
“Cash bail systems like the one in place in St. Louis criminalize poverty. Not only are these systems unconstitutional, they cause serious harm to people who are presumed innocent and their families, without contributing to public safety,” said Seth Wayne, a litigator at ICAP. “As part of our mission to defend American constitutional rights and values, ICAP is proud to join other legal experts in challenging this unjust and counterproductive system.” Approximately 96 percent of people charged with a crime in St. Louis City are assigned bail amounts higher than state and national averages. In comparison, the percentage of people assigned bail in Philadelphia is 60 percent while New York is 39.8 percent and Washington, DC, is 15 percent. Instead of first meeting with a judge, a defendant meets with a bail commissioner who makes a recommendation for their bond. The person then goes in front of a judge via video conference without legal representation and is told what their bond amount is. Residents are denied basic rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution and Missouri law, and forced into pretrial detention, often at the Workhouse.
This lawsuit is the latest challenge to the City’s criminal legal system. In November 2017, ArchCity Defenders filed a conditions case on behalf of people detained in the Workhouse that is still pending. In addition to the litigation, the Close the Workhouse campaign made up of directly impacted people and regional allies, took root in 2018 with the primary goal of permanently closing the Workhouse and ensuring another jail is not built in its place.
In addition to advocating for residents who have lost employment and housing as a result of spending unnecessary time incarcerated pre-trial, this lawsuit is part of a larger campaign to close the Workhouse. Additional local organizations including the Bail Project and Action STL are involved in the Close the Workhouse campaign to raise awareness about how damaging cash bail is to families throughout the region. Advancement Project National Office is working with these grassroots partners as part of its national campaign to shine a light on the country’s reliance on incarceration and get communities to re-imagine public safety.
ArchCity Defenders (ACD) is a 501(c)3 non-profit civil rights law firm providing holistic legal advocacy and combating the criminalization of poverty and state violence against poor people and people of color. ACD uses direct services, impact litigation, and policy and media advocacy as its primary tools to promote justice, protect civil and human rights, and bring about systemic
change on behalf of the poor and communities of color directly impacted by the abuses of the legal system.
Advancement Project’s National Office is a next generation, multi-racial civil rights organization. Rooted in the great human rights struggles for equality and justice, Advancement Project National Office exists to fulfill America’s promise of a caring, inclusive and just democracy. The organization uses innovative tools and strategies to strengthen social movements and achieve high impact policy change.
Civil Rights Corps is a non-profit organization dedicated to challenging systemic injustice in the American legal system. We work with individuals accused and convicted of crimes, their families and communities, people currently or formerly incarcerated, activists, organizers, judges, and government officials to challenge mass human caging and to create a legal system that promotes equality and human freedom. Civil Rights Corps engages in advocacy and public education and specializes in innovative, systemic civil rights litigation with the goal of resensitizing the legal system and our culture to the injustice and brutality that characterize the contemporary American criminal system.
The mission of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) is to use the power of the courts to defend American constitutional rights and values. The Institute, based at Georgetown University Law Center, draws on expert litigators, savvy litigation strategy, and the constitutional scholarship of Georgetown to vindicate individuals’ rights and protect America’s constitutional way of life.