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St. Louis’ Cash Bail System Challenged In Court

Supporters of the campaign to shut down the medium security jail in St. Louis known as the Workhouse listen on Jan. 28, 2019 as Blake Strode, the executive director of ArchCity Defenders, outlines a lawsuit against the city's cash bail system.
Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio

Updated 4:55  p.m. Jan. 28th with a copy of the lawsuit — A legal advocacy group has sued St. Louis over a cash bail system it calls unconstitutional.

St. Louis-based ArchCity Defenders, along with the Advancement Project, Civil Rights Corps and the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown Law, claim in a federal lawsuit filed Monday that individuals charged with a crime routinely spend weeks behind bars because they cannot afford bail amounts that are higher than the national average. Those same defendants, the suit says, are not given a chance to advocate for a lower bail.

“All of these individuals have been shuffled through a process, or lack thereof, with no consideration of their financial circumstances, no findings regarding flight risk or risk to public safety, and no consideration of alternatives to money bail,” said Blake Strode, the executive director of ArchCity. “Simply put, these men have been condemned to remain locked in cages for weeks solely because they are poor. This is immoral and unconstitutional, and must end.” 

The groups sued on behalf of four individuals who were arrested and charged with crimes earlier this year. All four men remain in jail because they cannot pay bail, which was set in the six-figure range. The attorneys are hoping they will be allowed to include “all arrestees who are, or will be, detained” in either of the city’s two jails because they cannot bond out.

A similar lawsuit filed in Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, in 2017 led to reforms for bail in misdemeanor cases. A second suit filed earlier this month challenges the system for felony cases.

The process is unconstitutional in several ways, advocates say.

The bond commissioner, who makes recommendations to the judges about whether an inmate should be released, and under what conditions, “has a practice of not inquiring into an ability to pay. He also has a practice of only recommending monetary conditions of release.” The sheriff, allegedly, tells defendants not to tell a judge they cannot afford bail at an initial hearing, according to the suit. The judges “have a practice of setting unaffordable release conditions without any process or findings, let alone constitutionally sound ones.” All of those combine to violate the rights of poor defendants, ArchCity says.

ArchCity is asking a federal judge to require that defendants have an attorney present at the initial bond hearing. Judges and the bond commissioner should have to consider whether someone can afford to pay the bail before the amount is set, and judges should have to “make substantive findings on the record about why an individual’s continued incarceration is warranted.”

A spokesman for the 22nd Circuit Court said the judges followed "all applicable Missouri statutes in the setting of pretrial release conditions," including bail amounts, and welcomed a federal review of their practices. Officials with the sheriff’s office said they had not yet seen a copy of the suit and therefore would not comment.

Read the lawsuit filed by ArchCity Defenders, the Advancement Project, the Institute for Constitutuional Advocacy and Protection and Civil Rights Corps.


Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

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