Debtors' Prison in 21st-Century America

For failing to pay parking tickets, court fees, and other petty municipal citations, black residents of Greater St. Louis are ending up behind bars.

Andrey_Popov / nimon / Shutterstock / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

In 1846, Dred Scott began his infamous legal battle in what is now called the “Old Courthouse” in downtown St. Louis. Scott had traveled with his master from Missouri to Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory, neither of which recognized slavery. Having lived for an extended period in free territory, Scott argued that state law supported his claim to freedom. But the Missouri Supreme Court disagreed. The court’s message to Scott was clear: Perhaps you can live freely elsewhere, but not here.

More than a century and a half later, the St. Louis region continues to distinguish itself as one that is hostile to its poor black residents. Since the killing of Michael Brown in August of 2014, St. Louis and its neighboring municipalities have been frequently cited for legal and moral failings in the region’s municipal justice system. A report released by the Department of Justice last year profiled these failings in great detail, as did a white paper released by the local nonprofit law firm ArchCity Defenders in 2014. (Blake Strode, one of the coauthors of this story, is currently on staff at ArchCity Defenders.)

More recently, the Department of Justice filed suit against the City of Ferguson after the city council rejected a proposed settlement that sought to bring reforms to the police department and municipal court. The lawsuit outlines myriad constitutional civil-rights claims ranging from violations of Equal Protection and Due Process to patterns of unlawful arrest and excessive force. Some of these claims focus on the city’s court, detention, and bail practices, claims similar to those already pending against Ferguson in a class-action lawsuit filed last year by ArchCity Defenders, St. Louis University Law Clinic, and the civil-rights organization Equal Justice Under Law.

In announcing the decision to sue Ferguson, Attorney General Loretta Lynch stated that the residents of Ferguson “have waited decades for justice. They should not be forced to wait any longer.” This was a powerful statement by the nation’s chief legal official, and one that should extend far beyond the city limits of Ferguson.

As the recent deluge of reports and litigation confirms, and many have long known, thousands of people throughout the St. Louis metropolitan area are routinely sent to jail because they cannot pay local court fines and fees. These people are poor, and they tend to be black. While there are many terms to describe this—including, importantly, unconstitutional—there is one with historical resonance reserved for such a practice: debtors’ prison.

Historically, the phrase debtors’ prison refers to any detention facility in which people are incarcerated for their failure to pay a debt. Today, the “debts” that lead to incarceration take the form of monetary penalties established and enforced by municipal courts. For many people throughout the St. Louis region, the nightmare of debtors’ prison is a recurring one: Each time a payment or court date is missed, the court issues another warrant, and the individual is subject to arrest, jail, and additional fines and court fees.

Despite prior attempts on the federal level and across the country to prevent the profound injustice of locking people in cages because they are too poor to pay a debt, the practice persists every day. The racially segregated landscape of the St. Louis metropolitan area, and the prevalence of racially homogenous debtors’ prisons within its borders, are not a coincidence.

The region’s troubled present speaks with startling precision to a dark past. In this sense, the region’s debtors’ prisons are perhaps best understood as a predictable eventuality, the result of a complex matrix of public policies and historical racial subjugation that continues to corrupt the local administration of justice. One need not believe in grand conspiracies to draw a direct line from the stark realities of contemporary St. Louis to the icy reception of the first wave of black residents seeking refuge from the terror of the Jim Crow South. There was, indeed, a master plan, and its goals were explicit.

* * *

St. Louis’s regional challenges lie in part in its political and administrative structure. The St. Louis metropolitan area is made up of more than a dozen counties in eastern Missouri and southwestern Illinois. At its core are St. Louis City and St. Louis County, which consists of a tangled web of 90 municipalities. Most of the nearly 50 in North County are majority-black and struggling to make ends meet. Many have their own police force, mayor, city council, and municipal court.

This regional structure presents a major problem for city budgets dependent on tax revenue. Most cities pay for their agencies and city services with a mix of taxes, fees, and fines. In small, poor, mostly black cities like those that make up North St. Louis County, tax revenues collected from city residents are too meager to cover municipal expenses.

What these cities lack in tax receipts, they collect through fines and fees stemming from minor municipal violations. These include vehicle violations such as expired registration, speeding, or seat-belt tickets, and other offenses like “saggy pants” or property-upkeep tickets (everything from chipped paint to trash-can violations). Simply put, these are not serious crimes. And, to make matters worse, such laws are unevenly enforced. City governments, incentivized by their own budget goals and shortfalls, encourage local police to increase the number of citations in order to drive up revenue. Municipal courts are the mechanism for collection.

Qiana Williams is a 37-year-old single mother and long-time resident of St. Louis. Her story is representative of the damage that the broken municipal justice system can have on the lives of the individuals sucked into it. According to Williams, her problems began at the age of 19 when she was ticketed for driving without a license. A couple of months later, after missing a court date, she was arrested and held on a $250 bond, an amount that she could not afford to pay. It eventually became clear that she was unable to pay the bond, even with the threat of continued detention, and she was released—without ever appearing before a judge and with the underlying fine still outstanding, she recalls.

Since that time, Williams has spent more than four months total in jail in a spiral of unpaid tickets, warrants, and ever-increasing fines that she could not pay because she lacked the necessary income. Hopeful that she would be able to lift herself and her family out of this cycle and pay off her tickets with a college degree, she enrolled in school. She was just 12 credits shy of her degree when she was arrested again for unpaid traffic tickets, she said.

On one occasion in 2001, Williams called the police after being assaulted by an ex-boyfriend. According to her, when officers arrived, they asked her to step outside to identify the perpetrator. Once outside, she was arrested on an outstanding warrant stemming from parking tickets. The man who assaulted her was released. She says she was told (wrongly) that she could not press charges with an outstanding warrant.

As is almost always the case, Williams’s family suffered with her during her repeated detentions. Williams’s 10-year-old daughter, Royal, has been deprived of her mother on Christmas, New Year’s, and many other nights, because her mother did not have the resources to pay off municipal-court fines.

Walk into one of these courts on any given day—in Ferguson, Pagedale, Pine Lawn, Hazelwood, St. Ann, or easily 40 other municipalities across St. Louis County—and there will be row after row of poor black residents who have been called in to pay penitence for their wrongdoing. Some who are unable to pay are taken straight to the local jail. More often, when people fail to appear because they know that they cannot pay, arrest warrants are issued. Days, weeks, months, or even years later (often times during a routine traffic stop), they will be arrested and taken to jail on this warrant, with the threat of continued confinement serving as a new incentive for immediate payment, no matter the resultant hardships of securing such funds. Detentions stemming from unpaid municipal fines can last anywhere from minutes to weeks or, in extreme cases, even months. This is the reality of the local justice system for some of the most vulnerable residents of Greater St. Louis.

Defenders of the status quo make a case that laws must be followed. As the argument goes, the citations themselves are validly issued in accordance with local ordinances, and there must be mechanisms in place to enforce even those laws that might be considered mundane. These mechanisms include the issuance and execution of arrest warrants. And by the way, just don’t get tickets in the first place.

This last admonition is of little use for people like Qiana Williams. As a homeless single mother with a young daughter of school age, she was forced to decide whether it was worth risking being caught behind the wheel without a license in order to transport her daughter back and forth from school. Williams insists that she refused to have her daughter suffer the consequences of her homelessness.

Setting aside the assumption that all local ordinances serve legitimate municipal purposes (a highly debatable proposition for laws pertaining to “sagging pants” or “manner of walking in a roadway”), the simple fact is that violations of these ordinances only lead to jail time for certain people in certain places. There is very little reason to believe that people speed—or fail to signal, or occasionally put their trash cans in the wrong place—less in wealthier (and whiter) cities than in poor black cities. However, residents of wealthier cities are not jailed as a result.

Why? Two key reasons: For one, these kinds of violations are not as widely and strictly enforced in towns that receive plenty of revenue from other sources (and whose residents wield sufficient political power to halt such a practice in its tracks), and, for another, because the threat of detention does not exist for those who can afford to pay the fines associated with minor municipal citations.

But what about those who simply fail to appear in court? Should they not face arrest? On one level, for those who agree that the municipal offenses at issue do not themselves justify arrest and incarceration, it strains logic to think that a missed court date for such offenses should carry such punishment. But even beyond that, the reason that many people fail to appear in court is that they do not have the means to pay the fine, and they fear that they will be jailed if they show up empty-handed. Sadly, and despite strong legal protections for those facing such a decision, the fear is sometimes well-founded.

Skeptics rightly wonder how jailing people can possibly be a cost-efficient way to recover fines. In short, cities throughout the St. Louis area have cut costs to remain in the black. Residents who have experienced these local jails often complain of grotesque and inhumane conditions: unclean cells; shivering temperatures; lack of soap, toothpaste, or feminine-hygiene products. Meals frequently consist of a Honey Bun for breakfast, bologna sandwich or frozen chicken pot pie for lunch and dinner. Furthermore, many cities pass on jail costs to the imprisoned themselves through additional fees, cutting the expense significantly. Some cities even collaborate to create economies of scale in this money-making enterprise, by leasing out jail space in one facility to many neighboring cities. The result: a system that has become increasingly adept at squeezing funds out of the region’s poorest and most vulnerable residents.

In the 1983 case of Bearden v. Georgia, the Supreme Court held that even if “a State determines a fine or restitution to be the appropriate and adequate penalty for the crime, it may not thereafter imprison a person solely because he lacked the resources to pay it.” Courts are required to consider alternative methods of punishment, such as community service, if the person charged does not have the means to pay. But too many municipal judges fail to ask whether a person has the means. Considering the budgetary implications of neglecting to ask these questions, it is little wonder why.

The municipal trap is devastating for individual residents and their families. Those tangled within it routinely lose jobs, housing, future employability, health care, and other benefits, not to mention the time spent in sometimes atrociously maintained local jails. Perversely, these tiny municipalities maintain their ability to continue offering subpar city services by extorting and caging the very people they are meant to serve.

The fact that American public institutions treat anyone this way warrants outrage. But the truth is that this does not just happen to anyone. Instead, it happens to the same people who have been systematically oppressed and excluded for generations.

* * *

The municipal landscape of St. Louis County, like so many others in this country, was designed and implemented with the purpose of keeping black people out of certain neighborhoods and making life exceedingly difficult for those who made their way in. The region today is a reflection of that original intent. In this sense, the system of taxation by citation and its reliance on debtors’ prisons does not represent a new problem, but rather a modern adaptation of a very old model.

During the Great Migration of the early 1900s, St. Louis became a popular destination for many former slaves relocating in droves from the Deep South. During this “Negro Invasion,” the City of St. Louis passed a local ordinance mandating that blacks and whites live on separate, designated blocks, becoming the first city in the country to pass such a measure by popular ballot. Soon after, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling effectively nullified this law. Undeterred, white residents, realtors, and city planners quickly found new ways to enforce racial segregation in the area.

Zoning ordinances were one effective tool. Under the leadership of famed city-planner Harland Bartholomew, the City Planning Commission routinely engaged in practices designed to preserve the longstanding racial hierarchy within the city, which is to say, white supremacy. White neighborhoods received priority single-family zoning designations. Multifamily, commercial, and industrial zoning were reserved for areas with large black populations. Many homeowners and neighborhood associations also used racially restrictive covenants prohibiting the resale of property to black buyers. Such covenants were commonplace until ruled unconstitutional in the 1948 landmark St. Louis-based case Shelley v. Kraemer.

With continued black encroachment in the city, the first wave of white flight saw an influx of people into the northern suburbs through the 1940s and ‘50s, aided by government-backed loans from the Federal Housing Administration. This massive federal investment was accompanied by the practice of redlining, or blocking off particular communities from federal dollars based on the presence of black residents. New white transplants to North St. Louis County quickly set about establishing independent municipalities that enabled them to pass zoning ordinances and residency requirements designed to thwart black interlopers.

These efforts were temporarily effective, but eventually failed like those before. Economically ascendant middle-class black families began purchasing property in these towns, determined to share in this new American Dream of spacious homes in quiet neighborhoods and high-quality schools for their children. Most of these black families left northern St. Louis City and moved into the fledgling municipalities of nearby North St. Louis County.

This triggered a second wave of white flight. Thousands of middle-class whites with the financial means moved westward and southward to towns that—due to geography, economics, and blatant discrimination—managed to maintain their racial homogeneity. The North County cities and towns left behind saw the predictable effects of any mass exodus, no matter the racial makeup: steep declines in property values, employment opportunities, and income levels.

This mix of residential trends and public policies reveals a game of musical chairs with a perverse twist: Poor black people must remain standing. Far from a distant memory, this systemic oppression continues to draw invisible lines among St. Louis’s population: in the scourge of subprime mortgages and mass evictions in primarily black communities and in the prevalence of debt-collection lawsuits against black families—families left with no financial safety net to fall back on after generations of discrimination.

* * *

This history is crucial not only in understanding the debtors’-prison crisis, but also in understanding the pattern of racial disparity that characterizes the region. While the modern proliferation of debtors’ prisons is an affliction primarily plaguing poor, black municipalities, some parts of St. Louis County that remain almost entirely white continue to resemble the old model of racial exclusion. The City of Ladue is an infamous example of racial targeting in the region. One of the wealthiest cities in the entire country, Ladue is less than 1 percent black. Yet, in 2014 a black driver was 18.5 times more likely to be pulled over than a white driver. Following a stop, a black driver was 2.4 times more likely to be searched and 2.7 times more likely to be arrested.

In a disturbing admission in May of last year, the city’s former police chief described a conversation with the former mayor in which she directed him to target black drivers so that “‘those people’ can see what happens to blacks and that we don’t want them here.” (The city has denied the former chief’s allegations.) What could possibly explain such use of local police and courts? While a city like Ladue does not face the same budgetary demands as many of the revenue-challenged cities in North County, it is still the product of a broader regional structure designed to exclude and oppress.

The elegance of local power as a tool of social control is in the seemingly colorblind tedium characterizing the bulk of city affairs. At first glance, issues of local governance appear more bureaucratic than political, more administrative than ideological. However, the history of St. Louis and the surrounding county make clear that many of the region’s cities—with their municipal charters, departments and ordinances—were established with the explicit intent of keeping out undesirable black residents threatening to upset the racial order. Such places were never meant to be hospitable to such people.

There is a tendency to understand intent, much like racism itself, as only an interpersonal phenomenon. Bias, both conscious and unconscious, is real and destructive. But the systemic intent at work in a place like St. Louis is more a matter of inertia than personal biases. Like Frankenstein’s monster, the system has a life of its own. Local courts and jails are not rife with injustice and racial disparity because they are staffed with ill-meaning personnel; they exhibit these problems because they are the product of structures and policies designed with racial hostility. That is to say, ultimately, these structures and policies have worked precisely as planned.

* * *

Community activists and court-reform advocates in the St. Louis area are calling for a complete overhaul of the municipal-court system. They demand that the current structure of scattered, largely autonomous local courts be abolished and replaced with a single, consolidated, professional court operating with renewed emphasis on procedural fairness as opposed to revenue generation. Opponents of such sweeping change prefer instead to focus on issues of personnel, training of court officials, and other less disruptive modifications.

The story of the debtors’-prison crisis in St. Louis is partly one of individual failings by local officials and institutional actors whose job security depends on collective indifference to the status quo. But to regard the story solely, or primarily, as one of individual failings is to fundamentally misunderstand the problem itself as well as the structural forces responsible for the design of the region. This design did not emerge last week, last month or last year. It is the many-headed hydra produced by conscious and sustained efforts many decades ago.

The region’s institutionalized racism left more than haunting memories; it left a legacy that continues to affect countless lives in the greater St. Louis area. For Dred Scott, more than a 150 years ago, the cost of returning to St. Louis was his freedom. For thousands of mostly poor black people living in this region today, their freedom remains up for grabs.