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Tony Messenger is the metro columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Memorial held for John Shy who died at St. Louis County Justice Center jail

Friends and family of John Shy hold a vigil in his memory outside the St. Louis County Justice Center jail in Clayton on Monday, March 4, 2019. Shy, 29, is one of three men who have died while in custody at the jail in 2019. On Saturday Feb. 23, 2019 at 3:15 a.m. Shy was taken to the emergency room at St. Mary?s complaining of stomach pain. He was brought back to the jail at 6:31 a.m. and was held in the infirmary. Shy complained of stomach pain again hours later. A Clayton police and fire dispatch record obtained by the Post-Dispatch through a public records request said a man had blood in his stool and was throwing up blood. An ambulance brought him back to St. Mary?s about 9:55 a.m., but he was returned to the jail at 12:30 p.m., where he later died. Shy?s family is seeking justice and a thorough investigation of circumstances leading to his death. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

Last year, a neighbor of mine was accused of the most heinous of crimes.

Jason Lawson of Wildwood was charged with molesting little girls. At least one of his victims was near the age of my youngest daughter.

The judge in his case set the 52-year-old man’s cash bail at $250,000. He later raised it to $300,000.

Lawson posted bond after about two weeks and was released from jail, pending trial. He was even allowed to go to Florida for a couple of weeks to work on property that he owned.

Earlier this month Lawson was convicted of statutory sodomy, statutory rape and child molestation. He is in jail awaiting sentencing.

This week, a 50-year-old man in the city of St. Louis, Antione Miller, was released from jail, pending trial.

Miller had been behind bars since 2017 when he was accused of raping a 14-year-old girl. His bail was set at $75,000. He’s free today because U.S. District Judge Audrey Fleissig issued a stern court order requiring city judges to start holding the ability-to-pay hearings the Constitution requires before setting bail. Fleissig’s ruling mirrors new rules on bail established by the Missouri Supreme Court that go into effect in July.

Miller, the accused child molester in the city, is black and poor and hasn’t been convicted of anything. He was in jail for two years.

Lawson, the accused child molester in the county, is white and had access to financial resources. He was in jail for two weeks.

This is the state of two-tiered justice in St. Louis, in Missouri, in the Land of the Free.

The dichotomy — one rule for those with money, another for those who lack it — is what led to a lawsuit filed by multiple civil rights organizations questioning the constitutional application of bail in the city. The lawsuit, filed in January by The Advancement Project, ArchCity Defenders, Civil Rights Corps and Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, alleges that the city has been violating the civil rights of defendants, most of them poor and black, by using high bails to punish people living in poverty who haven’t been convicted of the crimes of which they are accused.

Fleissig wants the same civil rights to apply to everybody.

The city’s public safety director, former judge Jimmie Edwards, does not. He isn’t happy that people like Miller are being released, pending trial.

“If you have a smoking gun, then I think you are a danger to our community,” Edwards said in a radio interview last week. “And you do not deserve to be in our community because you have the propensity to inflict further harm on the community.”

It’s an interesting metaphor for Edwards to choose.

Earlier this year, one of the police officers under his command, Nathaniel R. Hendren, was charged with killing another police officer, Katlyn Alix, after playing a version of Russian roulette.

Hendren literally had a smoking gun in his hand.

He has pleaded not guilty and is free on bond.

In effect, Edwards is saying, once you are charged with a crime — certain people, anyway — jail should be your home until further notice.

For too long, this has been standard operating procedure in Missouri. It even continues after convicted defendants have served their time. According to the Council of State Governments Justice Center, more than 50% of the people in Missouri’s prisons are there on probation or parole violations, many of them technical in nature, such as missing a drug test or failing to check in with a parole officer or getting a speeding ticket or failing to pay court costs.

Only two states put a higher percentage of people in prison for probation and parole violations than Missouri does. That’s one reason why the MacArthur Justice Center sued the state in federal court alleging that the way the state applies its parole processes violates due process rights of defendants guaranteed in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In February, U.S. District Judge Stephen Bough ruled in MacArthur’s favor. Bough wrote that the unconstitutional system in Missouri “created a procedural vortex from which people on parole cannot escape and are at continual risk of being rearrested and reentered into the prison system.”

There are real-world results for such constitutional failures.

People die.

MacArthur’s Missouri Director, Amy Breihan, reminded St. Louis County officials of that fact last week. In a letter to County Executive Sam Page and other county officials, Breihan and several other civil rights advocates urged the county to conduct an in-depth and transparent investigation into four recent prisoner deaths. Two of those who died, John Shy and Daniel Lee Stout, were being held on alleged parole violations.

“It really is shocking the number of folks Missouri locks up on parole violations each year — most often for technical violations — and how they’ve been doing it in an unconstitutional manner for so long,” Breihan says.

Pre-trial or post-trial, in Missouri, if you’re poor, you’re going to jail, and you might be there a very long time, the Constitution be damned.

If you’re really lucky, you’ll leave before you die.

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