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$3.25 Million Settlement In Missouri ‘Debtors Prison’ Lawsuit

The St. Louis suburb of Maplewood will pay $3.25 million to settle a federal lawsuit accusing the municipality of wrongfully jailing at least 7,000 people in a "debtors’ prison scheme in which people arrested over minor infractions were forced to pay exorbitant fines or face more time in jail. Maplewood, a city of 8,000 residents, will pay back the people who were jailed and the more than 20,000 people who paid the city fines and fees from 2011 to 2021, said to ArchCity Defenders, a legal advocacy organization that filed the suit in 2016. “For years, the City of Maplewood wrote thousands of tickets to raise millions of dollars in revenue,” said the group's Nathaniel Carroll, the New York Times reports. The city’s actions, he added, had “resulted in poor people, and mostly Black people, who were jailed for days at a time until Maplewood had extorted as much money as possible from them.”

The settlement ends a legal saga that began after the death of Michael Brown, a Black teenager who was fatally shot in 2016 by Darren Wilson, a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., another St. Louis suburb. The killing prompted intense scrutiny of police departments in St. Louis County municipalities, including Maplewood, where about 14 percent of residents are Black and where suspicions about the city’s ticketing and jailing system had been circulating. One of the plaintiffs in ArchCity Defenders’ suit, Frank Williams, a 62-year-old Black resident of Maplewood, said he had spent more than 14 days in jail for “failure to produce insurance ID,” because he could not afford to pay the fee. Most of the victims in the scheme were low-income people who were commuting through Maplewood between home, work, and school, ArchCity Defenders said. The suit charged that “out of a desire to profit” from people, Maplewood implemented “an unlawful pay-to-play system.” Under that system, people charged with minor counts would be issued arrest warrants with “insurmountable warrant bond fees.” Those unable to make the payment, they would face a lose-lose choice, according to the suit: Sit in jail; spend money to pay off the entire warrant bond fee, or hire, and pay, a lawyer.


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