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ST. LOUIS — A federal judge on Tuesday barred St. Louis jails from holding inmates simply because they can't pay bail. She granted class action status to inmates who sued.

U.S. District Judge Audrey Fleissig's ruling gives officials a week to hold new detention hearings for current inmates in the city's two jails and says new arrestees must have a hearing within 48 hours of their arrest. Inmates can still be held, Fleissig wrote, if they are a danger to the community or if there is no other way to ensure they show up for court. 

The ruling could affect hundreds of inmates in the city of St. Louis, potentially granting them new hearings, or even releasing them. It comes amid a widespread re-examination of bail practices in Missouri and across the country, and amid local efforts to close the city's workhouse, formally known as the Medium Security Institution.

Fleissig ruled in response to a suit filed by inmates who claim St. Louis is violating their constitutional rights by failing to weigh their ability to pay bonds, among other things, before jailing them. Lawyers for the inmates say some go days or weeks without being granted a hearing to reduce their bond. Inmates suffer physical and mental consequences for their prolonged detention in inhumane jail conditions, and lose jobs, homes and family connections, the lawsuit says.

The suit, filed in January, names judges, Sheriff Vernon Betts, the city of St. Louis and Dale Glass, commissioner of corrections.

Their lawyers and a spokesman for the judges did not return messages seeking comment.

Thomas Harvey, one of the lawyers who is representing inmates on behalf of the Advancement Project, said the ruling sends a message that "poor people cannot be held in jail because of their inability to make a cash payment to buy their freedom." He called the status quo a "racist and predatory scheme" in a statement in response to the ruling.

Blake Strode, executive director of the ArchCity Defenders law firm, told the Post-Dispatch that the decision is "perfectly consistent with the trend we see around the country” towards bail reform.

He said that current inmates had not received constitutional bail hearings. In past hearings, the presumption was that arrestees would be detained before trial, he said, often with cursory and inadequate hearings.

City Counselor Julian Bush warned in a prepared statement that the ruling "will result in the City having to release virtually all pretrial detainees unless each is granted a new, expedited bail hearing."

Bush said lawyers may ask for a stay of Fleissig's order. He said the ruling "could result in the release of potentially dangerous individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety."

But he said Mayor Lyda Krewson supports "reducing the jail population while maintaining public safety."

"The City," he said, "does not think nonviolent offenders, who are not a danger to the public, should languish in jail."

Fleissig faulted existing bail hearings in her ruling, saying they "fall short of constitutional standards" and that the inmates "have a high probability of prevailing on the merits" in the underlying lawsuit, which will continue.

"Ample evidence in the record shows that the duty judge presiding over initial appearances rarely considers information about an arrestee’s financial circumstances because the bond commissioner rarely provides it and arrestees are instructed not to speak," Fleissig wrote, referring to sheriff's deputies who tell inmates not to talk or request a bond reduction at their first appearance in court.

Deputies told one inmate: "'Nobody talk or ask questions,'" Fleissig wrote. They told the inmate they were just trying to get the hearing "done."

Fleissig said that in 98% of 222 cases examined by Elizabeth Forester, a law student working with the plaintiffs, a bond commissioner did not provide any information to the duty judge about a defendant's ability to pay, and the judge "set bail without any information on this constitutionally critical factor."

Forester said court appearances lasted approximately 45-60 seconds. Both she and Mary Fox, head of the public defender's office in St. Louis, said judges do not ask about an arrestee’s ability to pay or other factors, Fleissig's ruling says.

"Defendants provide no support for the suggestion that arrestees released without bail are more likely to commit crimes or less likely to appear in court than those released upon payment," Fleissig wrote. 

There's no evidence, she continued, that bail is more effective than other means of ensuring court appearances and public safety.

Fleissig rejected claims that the judges were immune from the suit, as well as claims that the arrestees should have handled the case in special state court motions when they couldn't afford lawyers.

Although new Missouri Supreme Court rules tightening the use of cash bail go into effect July 1, Harvey, the plaintiff's lawyer, said that there is "monstrous difference" between the law and "what actually happens in court." He said Fleissig's ruling also points that out, and rejects claims by defendants' lawyers that the new rules should moot the suit.

Two of the four original plaintiffs were released from jail in February after a deal was struck between lawyers to provide them bail hearings while the lawsuit is pending.

Robert Patrick is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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