ArchCity Defenders, Georgetown Law, Advancement Project National Office, Civil Rights Corps file lawsuit, challenging St. Louis City cash bail system

ST. LOUIS, Mo. – Hundreds of people have been condemned to the Workhouse, a de facto “pretrial detention” center as a result of St. Louis City’s bail practices. As a result of the injustice, local and national advocates have raised awareness on the issue, announced new litigation and have called for systemic change.

ArchCity Defenders, Advancement Project National Office and Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) led a conference announcing litigation to challenge St. Louis City’s unconstitutional cash bail practices, stating that “people impacted by money bail, in addition to the Close the Workhouse campaign, will raise awareness on this injustice, urge bail reform and closure of the Workhouse.”

The lawsuit is filed against the city itself, the sheriff’s department, Commissioner of Directions and multiple judges of the 22nd Judicial Circuit on behalf of many individuals who are or will be taken into the city’s custody and detained because they cannot afford to post a cash bond.

The Workforce, is a local jail in St. Louis City with reportedly a long history of abusive behavior by guards as well as inadequate medical care provided. Through the cash bail system, judges will use money bail as “a proxy for freedom,” according to a news release.

“None of these individuals have been convicted of the offense with which they are accused,” Blake Strode, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, said. “And none have had even the slightest opportunity to contest their continued detention. All of these individuals have been shuffled through a process, or a lack thereof, with no consideration of their financial circumstances, no findings regarding flight-risk or risk to public safety and no consideration for alternatives to money bail.”

Strode said the individuals have been condemned to remain locked up solely because they do not have the financial means to get out. He said the stakes could not be higher for their clients, and people like them, because the de facto detention orders that were issued by the court have costs thousands of individuals their homes, jobs and custody of their children among other things.

“And this is to say nothing of the harm caused by the unspeakable conditions in the city’s jails. Entire communities, mainly those that are poor and black in this city, continue to be devastated by the routine use of wealth-based pretrial detention,” Strode said. “We are calling on the city and its courts, not only to do what is right but what is required by the constitution.”

Montague Simmons, campaign manager of Close the Workforce, and Michelle Higgins, co-director of Action St. Louis and lead organizer of Close the Workhouse spoke on how the litigation aligns with the Close the Workforce’s campaign’s continued efforts “decarcerate” and “re-envision public safety” in the city.

“We know that the vast majority of the people in the Workhouse could be released immediately, if St. Louis City and the judges were not routinely [taking away] people’s rights. For someone living check to check, even a short time in jail can devastate their lives by risking their jobs, their home, access to their children and so much more,” Simmons said. “In St. Louis, the average pretrial detention in the Workhouse is 291 days. We meet new people and hear new stories daily. Their stories are a testament to how policies in our cities have destabilized families, caged people and left them without healthy food or access to decent medical attention.”

According to the release, the case highlights the two-tiered system of justice in America – one for poor people and people of color and another for rich people. Experiences shared of the plaintiffs have shed light on how the city’s cash bail scheme “renders poor residents powerless in court and condemns them to suffer the hellish conditions of the Workforce.

“Over the last five years, our city has struggled to come to terms with this legacy of racialized terror…from restrictive covenants to cash bail, the city has segregated, extracted and caged us whenever we got too close, deemed undesirable or labeled as criminal,” Simmons said. These stories are written in the faces of the marginalized, the increased number of victims of police violence and those who survived the cages.”

Reportedly, since judges do not allow individuals, who have been detained, to say whether they can pay to bond or ask about an alternative to the cash bail, it leads to a de facto preventive detention without “constitutional safeguards.”

“It is true that we are criminalizing poverty and we’re complicit in it unless we support the dismantling of the criminalization of the [law],” Higgins said.

Watch the live stream of the conference here.