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Does Ferguson run 'debtor's prison'? Lawsuit targets a source of unrest.

A harsh regime of fees for minor violations landed many Ferguson, Mo., residents in jail and fueled last summer's unrest. Now a lawsuit is taking aim at the system as some signs of progress emerge.

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    Two attendees raise their arms during a public comments portion of a meeting of the Ferguson City Council in this file photo from last September. The city has begun to rein in its system of fining residents for minor infractions, but a new lawsuit is pushing for greater change.
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A lawsuit filed Sunday aims to correct one of the driving factors behind the racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo., last summer: a local court system that, critics say, systematically jailed people too poor to pay fines accumulated from traffic tickets or other minor infractions.

A kind of 19th-century "debtor's prison" has been in place for years in Ferguson and nearby Jennings, Mo., say those who filed the lawsuit. The result, they add, is "a Dickensian system that flagrantly violates the basic constitutional and human rights of our community’s most vulnerable people."

The lawsuit comes at a time when several states and cities – including Ferguson – are beginning to address the grievances laid bare last summer. Ferguson has just not gone far enough or fast enough, the lawsuit claims.

As of last October, many small towns near St. Louis with majority black populations collected more money from traffic fines and court fees than from property and sales taxes, according to a report by Better Together, a St. Louis-area grass roots group.

In Ferguson, where two-thirds of the 21,000 residents are black, court-related revenues were the second largest source of city income, accounting for $2.6 million of the $20 million in total revenue, the report found. And in 2013, Ferguson issued almost 33,000 arrest warrants, more than one per resident, for unpaid fines for minor violations – though many were issued for non-residents.

"The practice of using fines and fees to impose ‘hidden taxes’ on the poorest populations is evident," the report said.

When riots broke out in Ferguson last August after a white police officer shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, many local observers suggested Ferguson's fee system had been a primary factor in building racial tensions to the breaking point.

The class action federal lawsuit filed Sunday takes aim at that system. It is being brought by lawyers from the Equal Justice Under Law of Washington, Arch City Defenders of St. Louis, and Saint Louis University School of Law on behalf of several plaintiffs jailed by Ferguson.

“Thousands of people ... take money from their disability checks or sacrifice money that is desperately needed by their families for food, diapers, clothing, rent, and utilities to pay ever increasing court fines, fees, costs, and surcharges,” claims the lawsuit, filed in United States District Court in eastern Missouri. “They are told that, if they do not pay, they will be thrown in jail. The cycle repeats itself, month after month, for years.”

But Ferguson officials have already begun to address the issue, and there are signs the municipal system in the region is beginning to change.

In September, the Ferguson City Council voted to cap municipal court income at 15 percent of total revenues. It also eliminated a fee for towing cars and dropped the arrest warrants for hundreds of residents who had not paid their fines.

In December, the Missouri Supreme Court told municipal courts they had to hold hearings – a costly and time-consuming process – before issuing warrants. The state high court also ruled courts must allow installment plans or waive or reduce fines for low-income residents.

Other states such as Colorado, Ohio, and Washington State have also attempted to better balance the process of budgeting, policing, and levying fines as civil libertarians and public activists begin to call attention to the issue, according to reports.

To the groups involved with the lawsuit, Ferguson and Jennings are emblematic of the nationwide need to reform harsh fee regimes that disproportionately penalize the poor.

“We've seen the rise of modern American debtors prisons, and nowhere is that phenomenon more stark than in Ferguson and Jennings municipal courts and municipal jails," Alec Karakatsanis, co-founder of Equal Justice Under Law, told NPR. "We have people languishing in grotesque conditions, solely because of their poverty."

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