Ferguson, Mo., Agrees to Pay $4.5 Million to Settle ‘Debtors’ Prison’ Suit - The World News

Ferguson, Mo., Agrees to Pay $4.5 Million to Settle ‘Debtors’ Prison’ Suit

The City of Ferguson, Mo., has agreed to pay $4.5 million to settle a federal lawsuit that accused it of violating the constitutional rights of thousands of people who said they were jailed without due process because they could not pay fines.

The lawsuit was filed in 2015 amid protests over the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, by a white Ferguson police officer. It accused the city of jailing the plaintiffs in “deplorable” conditions simply because they could not pay debts owed for traffic tickets or other minor offenses.

“They were threatened, abused, and left to languish in confinement,” lawyers for the plaintiffs argued in the suit, noting that these conditions lasted until families could produce enough cash for bail, or until jail officials decided to let them out.

On Tuesday, ArchCity Defenders, the nonprofit group in St. Louis that filed the suit, said in a statement that checks would be sent to more than 15,000 people who were jailed by the city between Feb. 8, 2010, and Dec. 30, 2022, and that the amount would depend on the number of hours each of them had spent in jail.

David Musgrave, Ferguson’s assistant city manager, said in an email on Thursday that the city would not comment “while the settlement agreement is pending final approval by the Court.”

Mr. Musgrave directed further questions to the city’s lawyers, one of whom, Apollo Carey, declined to comment. Another lawyer did not immediately respond to an email and call. Neither the mayor nor the Ferguson Police Department could be reached for comment on Thursday evening.

The lawsuit was among several in recent years that accused St. Louis-area municipalities of wrongfully jailing impoverished people. Last year, the City of Maplewood, Mo., agreed to pay $3.25 million to settle a suit that accused the city of jailing at least 7,000 people in a so-called debtors’ prison scheme. The City of Jennings, another suburb in St. Louis County, paid $4.75 million in 2016 to settle a similar lawsuit.

ArchCity Defenders has reached “some terms of settlement” in seven such cases, Blake Strode, the organization’s executive director, said in an interview. In the meantime, he added, the kinds of practices that put people who could not pay minor fines in jail had significantly gone down.

“It really is a powerful demonstration to what it can mean when people fight back,” Mr. Strode said. “Paired with other forms of advocacy and organizing and public pressure,” he added, “litigation can be a tool that can really spotlight injustices.”

In a 2015 interview with The New York Times, Allison Nelson, one of the nine lead plaintiffs in the Ferguson lawsuit, described receiving her first traffic ticket at 18 and, after that, being held for days in lockups that she described as filthy and smelling of mold, sewage and sweat.

“It was traumatizing dealing with this situation because the way we were getting treated,” Ms. Nelson, 32, said Thursday in a statement issued by ArchCity Defenders. “The cells were disgusting, we got fed honey buns, and there was human feces all over the walls. They did not care.”

She said she wished the case could have been settled before her mother, Tonya DeBerry, who was also a plaintiff, died in 2018.

“All I can say is, ‘finally,’” she said.

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