ST. LOUIS • A federal judge approved on Wednesday a $4.7 million settlement to compensate people who were jailed in Jennings for their inability to pay court fines and fees.
A records search identified 1,964 people who collectively spent more than 8,000 nights in jail for “failure to pay” between Feb. 8, 2010, and Sept. 16, 2015, according to the settlement and Blake Strode, a lawyer with ArchCity Defenders.
Attorneys have struggled to reach all those people since the settlement was signed in July. So far, just 414 people have come forward with valid claims, Strode said.
Attorneys are still working through a list of 306 others who made claims but were not identified in the initial record search. Some may have been arrested on other charges or been held for other jurisdictions and also had a Jennings warrant for failure to pay.
Each plaintiff’s share of a $3.5 million pot is still being worked out, based on the number of people in the class and how long each spent in jail. Nearly $1.2 million more will go to their attorneys from ArchCity, the St. Louis University law school and the Washington-based group Equal Justice Under Law.
Strode estimated that individuals might get $1,500 or more per day in jail, saying it would be “well within the range” of similar cases.
In a separate settlement, Jennings has agreed to change municipal court policies on collecting unpaid fines and fees.
John Ammann, a St. Louis University law professor, said Jennings now used a civil collection process rather than jail.
The Jennings cases are among a series of lawsuits arising from the 2014 Ferguson protests.
Ammann and Strode praised Jennings and its lawyer, D. Keith Henson, for being the first community to agree to changes and the first to come to the table to discuss a settlement. Henson said after the hearing he thought the agreement was fair, and declined to comment further.
U.S. District Judge Carol Jackson called the settlement “fair, reasonable and adequate,” and praised the work of both sides.
Plaintiffs in the audience hugged their attorneys after Wednesday’s hearing.
One of them, Keilee Fant, 39, a single parent of nine, said she had spent “weeks at a time” in the Jennings jail since her late teens, typically in cases that started with traffic tickets. Jailing her because of unpaid fines was counter-productive, she said, often costing her jobs.
When she would ask a prosecutor or judge to accept her jail time to resolve a case, she said, their typical response was: “We don’t do ‘time served.’”
“I can take responsibility for my traffic violations,” Fant said. But she complained that she did not deserve harsh treatment, such as name-calling by jailers and being denied soap or a chance to shower behind bars.
The original suit claimed the Jennings jail operated as a debtors prison for people unable to pay fines, holding them until relatives or friends bought their freedom or until the officials just gave up. The city denied that claim in the settlement.