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Florissant is the latest area city facing federal lawsuit over 'debtors prison' allegations

Arch City Defenders executive director Thomas Harvey speaking during a 2014 meeting of the Ferguson Commission.
File photo | Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
The Arch City Defenders, led by executive director Thomas Harvey, pictured here in 2014, has sued the city of Florissant over its jailing of defendants who can't pay fines.

Florissant has become the 16th north St. Louis County municipality to face a federal lawsuit for jailing defendants simply because they couldn't pay a fine or court cost.

The Arch City Defenders filed the class action lawsuit on Monday. It alleges that the five individuals were among hundreds, if not thousands, of defendants "threatened, abused, and left to languish in confinement until their frightened family members produced enough cash to buy their freedom, or until City jail officials decided, days or weeks later, to release them free of charge — after it had become clear the City would not be able to extract any money from them."

The suit asks that Florissant stop the practice and repay those who were kept in the equivalent of a debtor's prison over the past five years.

"This isn't a simply question of changing practices going forward," said Thomas Harvey, the executive director of the Arch City Defenders. "It's doing right by the people you have illegally jailed."

Arch City settled similar claims against Jennings in 2015. Defendants who are eligible have until Nov. 24 to file a claim. There are also suits pending against Ferguson and the 13 communities that house defendants in the St. Ann jail.

The suits, Harvey said, are the only way to force changes to the municipal court system.

"You can just go back on voluntary changes when people stop looking," he said. "So what we're hoping to get is federal orders for at least a period of time so we can go to the federal court and get a contempt motion."

Florissant officials said they do not comment on pending litigation.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.