St. Louis' Cash Bail System Comes Under Fire in New Class-Action Lawsuit


People awaiting trial are "caged" in the city's Workhouse an average of 291 simply because they can't afford bail, a new lawsuit says. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • People awaiting trial are "caged" in the city's Workhouse an average of 291 simply because they can't afford bail, a new lawsuit says.

Charging that the city of St. Louis holds people in jail "simply because they are too poor to pay for their freedom," a host of civil rights organizations have filed a class-action suit demanding an end to its cash-bail system.

The lawsuit targets the city, its circuit court judges, Sheriff Vernon Betts, and Commissioner of Corrections Dale Glass. It asks a federal judge to declare its current practices unconstitutional — and to order the immediate release of four litigants currently being held in the city's Workhouse.

The suit argues that the city officials deny detainees equal protection under the law, as well as their right to due process.

"The Supreme Court has directed judges that pretrial detention should be a 'carefully limited exception' in our legal system," the suit notes. "Nevertheless, individuals arrested and charged in St. Louis City are subject to an unconstitutional system where they are denied any process to argue for their liberty.

"In fact, the first hearing on release conditions only occurs when an individual obtains counsel. Because appointment of a public defender typically takes four to five weeks, those too poor to pay the monetary release conditions or to hire a private attorney are subjected to extended pretrial incarceration before they have any opportunity to contest their release conditions. Conversely, wealthier individuals are released from custody almost immediately because they can pay the monetary conditions of release."

And the cost is real. The time spent confined to the notoriously hellish Workhouse — an average of 291 days waiting for trial, the suit notes — has real consequences: "[P]retrial detainees routinely suffer losses in employment, child custody, and housing, and experience greater risks of physical and emotional illness, barriers to counsel, and — critically — statistically worse trial and sentencing outcomes than released individuals who were charged with the same offense."

The suit has four named plaintiffs, each a man awaiting trial. Each of the four is currently being held in the Workhouse, and has been there for at least twelve days without an opportunity for release other than paying up.

One man, 25-year-old Richard Robards, is "desperate to be released soon to care for his pregnant partner." Another, 52-year-old David Buster Dixon, is the primary caregiver for a paralyzed uncle. Stuck in jail now for eighteen days since he can't afford a $30,000 cash bond, he "fears he will not make it out alive," the suit says.

The suit was filed by ArchCity Defenders and Georgetown Law's Institute for Constitutional Advocacy, along with two national organization: the Advancement Project National Office and the Civil Rights Corps.

Last fall, ArchCity Defenders filed a class-action suit against the city over the Workhouse, seeking a declaration that its "unspeakably hellish and inhumane" conditions are unconstitutional, and asking a federal judge to shut it down or fine the city until makes major fixes.

That suit is still pending.

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