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Federal judge blasts St. Louis officials, judges for failure to comply with cash bail order

Federal judge blasts St. Louis officials, judges for failure to comply with cash bail order


ST. LOUIS — A federal judge on Friday blasted St. Louis officials and judges for failing to comply with a court order mandating hearings for those jailed because they are simply too poor to pay bail.

U.S. District Judge Audrey Fleissig said her June 11 preliminary injunction in a civil case filed by inmates was “fairly consistent” with the new rules from the Missouri Supreme Court that go into effect July 1 limiting judges’ use of cash bail and how long a defendant can be jailed without a hearing. She said she was “somewhat appalled” and “disappointed” that St. Louis judges were not better prepared.

Fleissig’s order bars St. Louis jails from holding inmates simply because they can’t pay bail and gave officials a week to hold new detention hearings for current inmates. 

Fleissig also said that lawyers for the defendants — judges and city officials — had seen a proposed order sought by lawyers for inmates in February and had lodged no objections to their ability to implement it until after she entered the preliminary injunction.

The underlying lawsuit was filed in January on behalf of inmates who say they were jailed not because they were a danger to the community or were flight risks, but simply because they were too poor to pay bail. They complain that judges have failed to seek out alternatives to bail. The lawsuit comes amid a widespread reexamination of cash bail practices. 

Lawyers for city officials said in filings that they were not disputing her conclusions on the constitutional failures of past bond hearings. But they asked Fleissig on Thursday to put her order on hold while they appealed, or to give them more time to comply, listing the number of defendants charged with murder, sex crimes and other offenses that would be subject to the ruling.

A clearly irritated Fleissig called it a “parade of horrors” that implied that people accused of murder would be released because of her order. She also seemed surprised that defendants would have been jailed on cash bonds with no judicial findings about whether they were a danger to the community.

Robert Dierker, an associate St. Louis city counselor and former longtime judge, told Fleissig that judges would typically set high bonds for those accused of murder, and occasionally allow no bond. Those bond settings were de facto substitutes for hearings at which someone’s danger to the community or risk of flight would be assessed, he said. 

“I was hopeful that that was not how the system worked,” she replied.

Fleissig told lawyers on both sides to work together to prioritize hearings for those who did not receive even bond hearings and postpone hearings for those accused of murder who are unlikely to be released anyway.

Jacqueline Kutnik-Bauder, a lawyer with the nonprofit ArchCity Defenders, said that 11 people had been released as a result of hearings Friday, including two who had been in jail for six months. But she complained that there didn’t seem to be any movement by city judges to schedule more hearings.

That prompted Fleissig to strongly suggest that judges hold 30 hearings per day in the next three working days. She said she expects both sides to work together on a plan and share it with her by next Friday.

Toward the end of the hearing, Fleissig pointed out that roughly 45 people will be released without hearings through an agreement between prosecutors and defense lawyers.

“This is a good thing” for the city, which no longer had to bear the cost of housing them, and for the defendants and their families, she said. She stressed that she was not proposing the release of inmates who pose a danger to the community, but “a proper procedure that is not based solely on money” and consistent with the new Supreme Court rules.

Mary Fox, head of the public defender’s office, said in an interview after the hearing that Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner had reached out to Fox to try to work out a deal for the release of defendants before hearings. Fox said all were accused of nonviolent drug or property crimes and would likely be released Monday after any crime victims are notified. Fox said deals were also worked out for about six or seven other people prior to hearings Friday. Only three of 17 people who had hearings scheduled will stay in jail, she said.

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