Thomas Harvey

Thomas Harvey, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, testified at a hearing of a Missouri Supreme Court working group on municipal court reform on November 12, 2015. Photo by Wiley Price

On December 14, U.S. District Judge Carol Jackson approved the terms of a landmark debtors' prison class action brought by ArchCity Defenders, Saint Louis University Law School's Legal Clinic, and Civil Rights Corp against the City of Jennings. The terms of the Jennings' settlement are enforceable in federal court and end illegal practices such as cash bail, debtors' prisons, and payment dockets.

The settlement is for $4.7 million and includes debt forgiveness of approximately $2 million. It’s the highest per diem payout in a debtors’ prison case to date, according to ArchCity Defenders.

"I'm happy about the agreement but there is so much more to do for people who have been ensnared and exploited by the system, in order to help them get back to some semblance of stability in their lives, and that's a stark reminder that we have to get back to work," said Thomas Harvey, executive director of ArchCity Defenders.

“The amount of money that we can secure with these settlements pales in comparison to the damages that people have survived. Until the legal system begins to treat poor people and black people with a modicum of respect and with the humanity they deserve, we're going to keep fighting this fight."

The lawsuit against Jennings was filed in February 2015, and was brought on behalf of the 2,000 people who languished nearly 9,000 days in the City of Jennings jail solely because they were not able to pay traffic tickets and court fines. A preliminary settlement agreement was filed with the court four months ago, to include a four-month "notice period" so that as many people who had valid claims could make them. That notice period ended on December 14.

“We had to go back to court to state how many people made a claim, whether or not anyone objected or opted out, and to ask the court if it would give our settlement agreement final approval,” Harvey told The American.

“Judge Jackson gave final approval to the agreement. The claims administrator now has 4-6 weeks to give a final number for claims made, establish the per diem pay out, and cut checks to everyone who made a valid claim. People should start receiving their payments before the end of January. “

Attorneys would worked on the settlement said it could be a model for the region and represent minimum standards for future litigation.

“No human being should be kept in a cage because she cannot make a monetary payment. This groundbreaking settlement brings us a big step toward eradicating the scourge of wealth-based human caging that we have allowed to pervade our modern American legal system,” said Alec Karakatsanis, founder and executive director of Civil Rights Corp, a nonprofit organization dedicated to challenging systemic injustice in the American legal system.

“While this ruling holds promise for similar cases, impact litigation can only go so far as to achieve racial and economic equity for poor people and black people who have been exploited by cities’ courts, police and jails,” said Brendan Roediger, from Saint Louis University School of Law Legal Clinics.

In the past couple of years, ArchCity Defenders has established a court watch model, published two white papers, and filed two dozen lawsuits challenging illegal practices of the region’s courts and police departments. In 2016 alone, ArchCity Defenders filed lawsuits against 16 other municipalities in the region for allegations akin to Jennings.

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