Lawsuit Challenges St. Louis Bail System That Keeps Poor People Trapped Behind Bars

Class action claim contends 85 percent of people jailed before trial simply cannot afford to pay and aren't offered alternatives.


Prison corridor
Pavlo Vakhrushev /

A pack of civil rights and criminal justice reform groups are teaming up to target St. Louis in a class action lawsuit challenging a pretrial system that leaves people trapped behind bars with no recourse if they don't have the money to pay for bail.

It's the latest salvo in the legal push to try to force court systems across the country to reform the way they handle people who have been charged with crimes, but not yet been convicted. Several court systems and judges have turned to a dependency on bail schedules that require defendants to pay sometimes excessive amounts of money (either directly to the courts or a smaller amount to a bail bondsman) in order to be freed from jail before their trials.

The system has come under attack because in many communities, judges or magistrates rarely give any consideration to a defendant's ability to pay bail. So across the country there are thousands of people stuck in jail cells not because they're deemed flight risks or dangers to society—the ostensible reason why courts are asking bail in the first place—but because they simply don't have the money to pay bail.

On Monday, St. Louis-based ArchCity Defenders, teaming up with the Advancement Project, the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown Law, and the Civil Rights Corps, filed a class action federal lawsuit arguing that the city's bail system leaves people trapped in jail and punishes them because they're poor, violating their constitutional rights.

The lawsuit has been filed on behalf of four men who are detained at the City Workhouse, St. Louis' medium security detention center. According to the lawsuit, these men were arrested and told they would remain in custody unless they coughed up thousands of dollars for a bond. At no point were they asked about their ability to pay, nor were they able to plead their case. One plaintiff said a judge would cut off anybody who attempted to speak or explain that they couldn't afford the bond.

According to the lawsuit, defendants who cannot pay the bond demanded of them can be left in detention for weeks because they won't get a release hearing until they have counsel. For those who need a public defender, it can take four to five weeks for get one appointed. As a result of these practices, about 85 percent of the more than 1,000 defendants locked up in St. Louis jails are there because they cannot afford the bail that has been demanded of them, according to the suit.

The lawsuit is asking that the court declare that this pretrial detention system violates defendants' equal protection and due process rights, and they're seeking an injunction to stop St. Louis from jailing people just because they cannot afford to pay their bond.

In a press conference announcing the lawsuit Monday, ArchCity Defenders Executive Director Blake Strode noted, "Simply put, these men have been condemned to be locked in cages for weeks, solely because they are poor…The de facto detention orders issued by this circuit have cost thousands of people their homes, jobs, custody of their children, and much more."

Read the lawsuit for yourself here. And read more about the alternatives to cash bail systems and the challenges implementing them here.

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  1. In a sane world, this lawsuit is a no-brainer. Unfortunately, it has been a long time since this world has been sane.

    1. The world is indeed insane, and I can think of nothing more ludicrous than the suggestion that rank criminal elements should be allowed to remain at large, spreading out across our cities and towns while they await their sentences. Clearly, there should be no bail at all for anyone, regardless of how much money they have. This is especially the case with anyone implicated in criminal internet “speech.” That one of our nation’s most dangerous criminal “satirists” was let out on the streets, and ultimately served no time at all, is a scandal that surely would not have been seen when there was still a measure of sanity in people’s heads. See the documentation at:

  2. Won’t someone please think of the St. Louis budget?

  3. At no point were they asked about their ability to pay, nor were they able to plead their case. One plaintiff said a judge would cut off anybody who attempted to speak or explain that they couldn’t afford the bond.

    Yes, judges do not give enough time to each case, in part, because they are over loaded with cases. Let’s reassign people working in bullshit jobs to judge cases. Granted, the average citizen does not have the same legal expertise as a judge, but maybe we could come up with a system that allows the accused to plead his case to a group of about a dozen peers.

    1. That’s just crazy talk, s! What’s next? Allowing “peers” to choose our leaders?

    2. I think the best way to fix the “overloaded with cases” problem is to reduce the number of completely bullshit behaviours that are illegal.

      1. i.e.: If we stopped arresting people for having the wrong plant without a license, the caseload for judges would be reduced.

        1. Why, we can’t allow people to just do whatever they please! We have a system of ordered liberty.

          1. You may know turn your sarcmeters off.

            1. NOW.


    3. How about a nice simple rule?

      Budget as you wish for public defenders, jails, judges, and whatever else handles pre-trial caseload.

      If that jail has no room for new prisoners, beyond its designed limit, the charges are dropped and the prisoner released, along with payment for their time wasted by the system.

      Presto changeo! You can bet your booty something would change. The easiest would be to not arrest people on bullshit charges. Someone might want to raise taxes to enlarge jails and hire more judges and public defenders, but the public would get tired of that nonsense pretty quickly.

  4. Also in local (St. Louis) police news, we have a mysterious incident where one on duty cop was at home with his partner and shot and killed an off duty cop who was visiting. The claim is they were playing a form of Russian Roulette.

    And then we just had some cops charged for shooting someone who they got in a fight with at a bar (while off duty).

  5. “sometimes excessive amounts of money”

    What we need is some kind of law against excessive bail.

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  7. “Class action claim contends 85 percent of people jailed before trial simply cannot afford to pay and aren’t offered alternatives.”

    The alternative to posting bail is to remain in custody.

  8. Kind of funny listening to people harp about these folks lack of preparedness. I’m sure, almost overwhelmingly, they put themselves in a position to end up in jail. Having done so, shouldn’t it be incumbent upon them to deal with the bail situation?
    I came from a pretty shitty upbringing and live a modest existence. Part of that existence is being prepared for eventualities like being incarcerated. I was once wrongly arrested and because I make it a point to know my rights and be prepared, and that is why I walked away unscathed.
    I am not special, I’m just an American that CHOOSES to be prepared, not engage in criminal activities, live within my means and be prepared for a rainy day.
    I doubt you’ll find much of that in jails and prisons. People reap what they sow.

  9. Here’s an alternative…how about not being a criminal and bail won’t be an issue poor people?

  10. What a bunch of brainiacs the commenters are here. Tell me, where did the Framers of The Constitution indicate the need and provide for police forces and prosecutors and their courtrooms filled with judges who all seem to disregard The Constitution. Who is supposed to look out for the Independent self-governing citizens?? Not those I just asked about, they break the law as often as anyone but are they charged? No. The “Rule of Law” my ass.

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