Although the Constitution prohibits caging people simply because they are poor, thousands of people are jailed every day because they are unable to pay court fines and fees. Attempts by cities and counties to generate revenue fuel this system of modern debtors’ prisons, corrupting policing and local courts across the county.
In 2014, a lawsuit led by Civil Rights Corps founder Alec Karakatsanis resulted in the release of every debtor from the Montgomery, Alabama jail and groundbreaking systemic reforms to its municipal court system. You can read more about this case here.
Since that landmark case, Civil Rights Corps staff members have worked with local partners to litigate successful cases to end debtors' prison practices all over the country, including in Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee.
For example, prior to a lawsuit litigated by Civil Rights Corps lawyers, ArchCity Defenders, and the St. Louis University School of Law, the City of Ferguson, Missouri made $2.46 million from minor cases in its municipal court in 2014. During that same period, the City averaged 3.62 arrest warrants per household and 2.2 arrest warrants for every adult, mostly for unpaid debt in old traffic cases. Working with the St. Louis University Legal Clinic and ArchCity Defenders, Civil Rights Corps staff brought cases against Ferguson and the neighboring city of Jennings, challenging their use of courts and jails to generate revenue for themselves. In July 2016, a federal judge in St. Louis gave preliminary approval to a settlement with the City of Jennings, resulting in the end of the use of jail to collect court debts, the forgiveness of past debts for thousands of people, and the end of money bail in the City for future arrestees. The settlement also awards $4.75 million to compensate nearly 2,000 people for the nearly 8,300 days they spent caged by the City for being unable to pay court debts. This agreement is the first of its kind and truly historic. You can read our complaint in the case, as well as coverage in the New York Times. Civil Rights Corps continues to litigate against Ferguson to end similar practices there. You can read our complaint challenging Ferguson's system of debtors' prisons here.
In January 2017, Civil Rights Corps filed a statewide class action lawsuit against the Governor of Tennessee and other state officials challenging Tennessee's outrageous law that strips people of their ability to drive if they cannot pay fines, fees, and costs from criminal cases. The law has stripped more than 146,000 people in Tennessee of their licenses since 2012. They cannot get to work, see their families, go to school, get groceries, or fully participate in daily life in a state that lacks adequate public transportation. Most perversely, they cannot earn the money that they need to pay off their debts to get their license back. We filed this lawsuit with National Center for Law and Economic Justice, Just City, and Baker Donelson as our partners. In the video below Jim Thomas, one of our named plaintiffs, describes the burdens not having a license can have on low-income people.
Our organization relentlessly litigates cases around the country to end the widespread practices through which police departments, courts, and jail systems profit from the poorest of the citizens they are meant to protect.
(The photo at the top of this page was taken in Montgomery, Alabama following an injunction to stop the city from collecting court fines; from left to right, Civil Rights Corps founder Alec Karakatsanis, plaintiffs Lorenzo Brown, Sharnalle Mitchell, and Tito William, and attorney Matt Swerdlin)