ArchCity Defenders

ArchCity Defenders

In 2019, ArchCity Defenders and partners from across the country challenged a system of cash bail that routinely caused people to be jailed pretrial in St. Louis because they could not afford to buy their freedom. Last month, a federal judge dismissed this lawsuit, holding that our claims were moot, or no longer presented a live issue. While this brought the legal case to a close, we wanted to reflect on what the system of pretrial release looked like just a few years ago, what it looks like now, how our efforts to date have both succeeded and fallen short in producing the change we all deserve, and what lies ahead.

The Old System

In 2018, before we filed this bail lawsuit, an average of 1,304 people were caged in the City’s two jails. Only 4% of people who were arrested were released on a promise to return. The remaining 96% of people were detained pretrial on a cash bond, often tens of thousands of dollars. Sheriff’s deputies briefly brought people in front of a judge to be told their bond amount.  Our clients were not allowed to speak and explain their situation; judges did not ask whether they could afford the bond; and at no point did a judge actually find there was a reason for our clients (and hundreds of others like them) to be jailed. They simply remained in jail because they were too poor to pay.

What Changed?

Activists and impacted communities began a national conversation about the brutal consequences of cash bail and other practices leading to mass pretrial caging. In St. Louis, The Bail Project opened its doors and began bailing people out. ArchCity Defenders, along with the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, Advancement Project National Office, and Civil Rights Corps filed our lawsuit in January 2019 asking the federal court to find that state court judges were systematically violating pretrial detainees’ rights. This lawsuit relied on testimony from a volunteer-operated court watching program led by ArchCity and the Close the Workhouse campaign that has shed light on myriad punitive, anti-poor, and anti-Black practices by courts in the region. 

In June 2019, the federal judge in this case issued an emergency ruling, prompting 171 people in City jails to get an individualized hearing. This led to 56 people being released, 49 given an affordable bond, and 13 cases dismissed outright. Those 119 people were released simply because they finally got a hearing. Combined, they had spent 11,147 days (or 30 years) in City jails because their bond had been out of reach. 

This order from the federal judge coincided with the Missouri Supreme Court issuing a set of rules which took effect in July 2019 regarding pretrial detention. These rules required that state courts make changes to their practices to ensure that people are only detained pretrial if there are no other options. 

The System Today

After the historic June 2019 ruling, we survived an appeal, continued intensive data collection, and renewed the effort to secure another federal order protecting people from arbitrary pretrial detention. Meanwhile, the pretrial release system in the court was changing—at times, as a direct result of this lawsuit. 

These changes fall into four categories:

First, rather than a 30-second appearance before a judge where people were not allowed to speak, there is now a separate division where a judge holds a short hearing and has to determine whether there is reason to detain a person. (The Circuit Attorney’s office also has prosecutors at these hearings who continue to ask for detention in the vast majority of cases.) 

Second, the number of people released on a promise to appear at their next court date has improved dramatically from 4% to nearly 40%.

Third, City judges have essentially stopped issuing cash bail and instead are detaining people on “no bond allowed.” This means there is no amount of money someone can pay to buy their freedom from jail.

Fourth, the courts hired a pretrial services coordinator, and stated a desire to partner with nonprofits to provide support in lieu of incarceration. Unfortunately, these services often result in presumptively innocent people being put on conditional probation or electronic monitoring.

We remain deeply concerned about many parts of this system. In April 2021, we outlined how some of these issues have fueled the crisis in the City Justice Center.

As such, earlier this year, we asked the federal judge to again require the circuit courts to ensure robust due process protections before any person is held in jail, including those held on “no bond allowed.” The judge denied our request, saying the overall system has changed enough to make our claims moot. Importantly, the federal court did not comment on whether the current practices are lawful; in fact, she acknowledged that we present very real concerns. But she ultimately decided that those could not be addressed in this lawsuit. You can read the Court’s decision here

Looking Ahead

In many ways, this is a classic tale of the local legal system recalibrating to preserve elements of the status quo.

It is clear that significantly more people are out of jail pretrial than they were before, and that the average City jail population has been cut almost in half: the yearly average is down to 677 people (552 total on the day of this release).

As acknowledged by the federal judge, community pressure from activism, court watchers, bailouts, and our bail litigation catalyzed many of these changes and led to this steep decrease. Our deepest gratitude goes to our clients—David Dixon, Richard Robards, Aaron Thurman, and Jeffrey Rozelle—who were locked in cages in January 2019 because they could not afford to buy their freedom. Torn away from their families, their jobs, and their daily lives, they courageously stood against the injustice of money bail as plaintiffs in this historic litigation. 

But, while there are fewer people suffering grotesque and violent conditions, the courts are continuing to cage people (still 85% Black), who are legally innocent and have not been convicted of a crime, for months or even years. Not only is this personally devastating, it is a needless cost to the City—data from The Bail Project shows that, in cases where they posted bonds, almost 50% ended in dismissal or a “not guilty” verdict. Simply put, no one in St. Louis is safer from forcing so many people to undergo the trauma of lengthy pretrial detention. 

According to City data from 1995 to 2021, people are also caged longer now than ever before. In 1995, a person was detained for 162 days. By 2018, the number was 187 days. In 2021, it sits at 386 days. This is an abject moral failure and must change.

While we have taken the legal arguments as far as they would go in this case, we remain committed to prioritizing investment in public safety without relying on criminalization and incarceration. 

If you are interested in being part of this fight, we invite you to follow and volunteer with ArchCity Defenders, the Close the Workhouse campaign, or the Defund.Re-envision.Transform. campaign, or to sign onto the People’s Plan and its commitment to Re-envisioning Public Safety.

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