Arch City Defenders

A coalition of local and national civil rights organizations have asked a federal judge to take action again in ensuring that St. Louis residents aren’t being held in city jails because they can’t afford to pay cash bail.

“With the spread of this virus and the unique public health threat posed by prisons and jails, it is more critical than ever to ensure that no one in this region is jailed for their poverty and without the process they are due,” said Blake Strode, executive director of ArchCity Defenders.

“Unfortunately, we know that many are. The communities we serve are disproportionately and adversely impacted by this crisis, and we have a responsibility to do everything in our power to help mitigate that harm.”

In June 2019, a federal judge ordered that cash bail in the city of St. Louis was unconstitutional. As a result, 119 St. Louis residents who were being held, pre-trial, on account of not being able to afford their cash bail were released. 

Now as the region faces a dramatic increase of COVID-19 cases in Missouri (the state’s number of reported cases crested 1,000 this week), the virus is expected to have a “deleterious impact” on jail populations in the Medium Security Institution (known as the Workhouse) and City Justice Center, the coalition said. 

On Monday, March 30, the coalition filed motions asking the federal judge to issue a class-wide preliminary injunction against Commissioner of Corrections Dale Glass that restrains him from enforcing “unconstitutional orders of detention.” The coalition also renewed a motion to reinstate a preliminary injunction against the City of St. Louis, Sheriff Vernon Betts, the judges of the 22nd Judicial Circuit, and Glass regarding cash bail.

On Tuesday, the State of Illinois reported the death of an incarcerated man from Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet. Another 12 men who were incarcerated at Stateville are now hospitalized, including several requiring ventilators. There are 77 more incarcerated individuals with symptoms who are isolated at the facility. Eleven staff are also being isolated.

“When the virus enters St. Louis’s jail facilities, it will ‘spread like wildfire’ with the potential to be highly fatal,” the motion filed in St. Louis states.

“This danger is a result of the close quarters in which people are held, poor sanitation practices, lack of ready access to supplies for hand-washing and other steps to prevent transmission, and substandard medical care. The class in this case consists of individuals who are now, or soon will be, at risk of becoming infected with COVID-19 solely because they cannot afford their monetary conditions of release. Exposure to this virus should not be based on one’s financial circumstances.”

The coalition filing the motions include Advancement Project National Office, ArchCity Defenders, Civil Rights Corps, and Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP)

The relief sought in this motion could also help people who are at elevated risk for contracting the coronavirus; who are detained on misdemeanors or on low-level drug offenses; and who are being detained on warrants, parole, or probation violation holds, the coalition stated.

“As cities across the nation begin to decarcerate people, we hope this motion inspires St. Louis to follow suit,” said Kayla Reed, co-founder and executive director of Action St. Louis.

“Nearly three years ago, we started leading community bail outs so that money didn’t stand in the way of someone’s freedom, someone’s job, or someone’s family. This is the latest challenge to an unjust system that tears families and communities apart.”

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