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St. Louis Ordered to Stop Holding Detainees Simply Because They Can’t Afford Bail

by Kevin Bliss

In response to a lawsuit, District Court Judge Audrey Fleissig of the Eastern District of Missouri ruled in favor of four detainees in St. Louis’ City Workhouse, forbidding St. Louis’ “jail system from detaining people for weeks on the sole basis of an inability to afford bail,” reports. “Instead, defendants must be granted a hearing within 48 hours to give the accused an opportunity to request release.”

The detainees filed suit against the prison for constitutional rights violations because they allege that the bail system discriminates against the poor.

Studies show that detainees who could not afford immediate bail or an attorney for a timely bail hearing waited an average of 47 days before a hearing was held. Moreover, 69 percent of those received reduced bails or were released on their own recognizance when a hearing was finally held. Civil rights advocates say this shows these detainees were never a threat to the community.

Represented by several civil rights organizations, the four detainees said they were forced to wait weeks in the jail simply because they could not afford bail.

The local court system employs a set bail schedule based on the nature of the crime. If a detainee wishes, he or she can request a subsequent bail hearing to have it changed. Yet, if a detainee cannot afford an attorney and needs a public defender appointed, he or she can wait weeks for the court to appoint one.

Fleissig said if the court wants to set a bail based on “financial conditions,” it must first determine a detainee’s ability to pay. It also must show that no other release possibility exists that would “reasonably ensure the arrestee’s future court appearance or the safety of others.”

The judge stated in her preliminary injunction: “The threat of irreparable harm to the [defendants] is obvious, not only in the form of prolonged incarceration itself, but also in the form of its severe collateral consequences such as physical illness and injury, mental trauma, loss of employment, loss of benefits, and family crisis.”

Fleissig granted class certification so that any other detainees may join the lawsuit. 



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