Seven years ago this week, Keilee Fant put her name on a lawsuit that was going to end debtors prisons in America. The lawsuit, labeled Fant vs. Ferguson, told in simple terms what was happening to poor, Black people every day in the conglomeration of cash-starved municipalities that make up north St. Louis County:
“In 2014, the City of Ferguson issued an average of more than 3.6 arrest warrants per household and almost 2.2 arrest warrants for every adult, mostly in cases involving unpaid debt for tickets. The City of Ferguson issues more arrest warrants per capita than any other city in Missouri larger than 10,000 residents,” read the lawsuit, filed by ArchCity Defenders, St. Louis University Law School Clinics and nonprofit Equal Protection Under the Law. “If the rest of the Saint Louis metropolitan area generated revenue from its courts at the rate done by relatively low-income Ferguson, it would have made nearly $1.3 billion in the past five years. The City’s modern debtors prison scheme has been increasingly profitable to the City of Ferguson, earning it millions of dollars over the past several years. It has also devastated the City’s poor, trapping them for years in a cycle of increased fees, debts, extortion, and cruel jailings.”
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There has been progress in those seven years. Most of the old guard in the police and court system in Ferguson are gone. The Missouri Legislature passed a law that limited the amount of revenue cities could raise from traffic debt. The Missouri Supreme Court ordered improvements to the operations of municipal courts, requiring, for instance, that there be ability-to-pay hearings before people are sent to jail because they can’t afford their fines and fees.
But, seven years later, the lawsuit languishes, in large part because of a dispute with the insurance company that represents many St. Louis County municipalities. Accountability awaits. Similar lawsuits against other cities in the county that operated similar schemes — Maplewood, Edmundson, St. Ann — also continue.
“As much as these towns have claimed to move on, the reality is our clients are still poor,” says ArchCity Defenders attorney Jack Waldron. “They paid these municipalities thousands of dollars over the years. There are thousands of people who still have their driver’s licenses suspended.”
There is a lesson for other cities across the nation as the Ferguson lawsuit drags on. Trying to undo the municipal schemes that extract money from poor people with devastating consequences is no trivial matter. The cities want their revenue. They will fight hard.
So it will be in the new Ferguson, a small town in Alabama known as Brookside.
Last month, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist John Archibald wrote a series of articles exposing the debtors prison scheme in the small burg along Interstate 22 just north of Birmingham, which raised 49% of its revenue from traffic fines in 2020. “On court days in Brookside, defendants line up outside while police direct traffic and order family members to remain in their cars,” Archibald wrote, describing a scene many in the St. Louis region know too well. “Many face hefty fines for failing to use a turn signal, or following too closely, or driving too long in the left lane of the interstate.”
Brookside is now facing its own civil rights lawsuits — five and counting. Its police chief has resigned. City and state leaders are aghast at the government tyranny behind a scheme that uses poor people as a back-door revenue source, with no real impact on public safety.
But Brookside is not alone, just like Ferguson wasn’t seven years ago when Fant filed her lawsuit. Real change won’t come until cities like Ferguson and Brookside have to pay the people whose civil rights they trampled some recompense.
In the St. Louis region, that ultimate outcome might mean that every taxpayer who pays into the St. Louis Area Insurance Trust bears some of the cost, which is appropriate, because Ferguson was never just about one little town in north St. Louis County.
It was about the region. It was about the state. It was about a nation that banned debtors prisons more than a century ago but allows them to operate in plain sight in 2022.
Seven years later, Fant and thousands of others like her are waiting to be made whole. Until they are, Ferguson is still everywhere.