National Civil Rights Organizations Take Legal Action to Protect People Locked Inside St. Louis Jails
At the height of the coronavirus pandemic one of the most dangerous places to be is in jail
March 30, 2020 [ST. LOUIS, MO] – Today in federal court, Advancement Project National Office, ArchCity Defenders, Civil Rights Corps, and Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) renewed a motion to reinstate a preliminary injunction against the City of St. Louis, Sheriff Vernon Betts, the judges of the 22nd Judicial Circuit, and Commissioner of Corrections Dale Glass to highlight the important and devastating changes brought about by COVID-19 for people in the Medium Security Institution (known as the Workhouse) and City Justice Center.
“With the spread of this virus and the unique public health threat posed by prisons and jails, it is more critical than ever to ensure that no one in this region is jailed for their poverty and without the process they are due. Unfortunately, we know that many are,” said Blake Strode, Executive Director of ArchCity Defenders. “The communities we serve are disproportionately and adversely impacted by this crisis, and we have a responsibility to do everything in our power to help mitigate that harm.”
This renewed motion seeks to ensure that detained individuals who cannot afford money bail are not put at risk of contracting COVID-19 while in jail solely because of their poverty. The relief sought in this motion could also help people who are at elevated risk for contracting the coronavirus; who are detained on misdemeanors or on low-level drug offenses; and who are being detained on warrants, parole, or probation violation holds.
In the original ruling from June 2019, a federal judge ordered that cash bail in the city of St. Louis was unconstitutional. As a result, 119 St. Louis residents who were being held, pre-trial, on account of not being able to afford their cash bail were released. The 119 released St. Louisans spent a combined 11,147 days in jail because their bond had not been set at an affordable level. That is 30 years of unnecessary, unconstitutional human caging that our lawsuit ended.
Now, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the stakes are heightened.
If detainees incarcerated in St. Louis’s jails were to become infected with COVID-19 and the virus were to spread rapidly within the jails, many prisoners and detainees would require urgent care, overwhelming the capacity of City of St. Louis Health Services to provide such care, exacerbating the death toll and the risks to all involved. Swift action at the federal, state, and local levels will prevent the spread of COVID-19 inside prisons, jails, and detention centers, while having an enormous impact on the wellness of the rest of the country.
Thomas B. Harvey, Justice Project Director at Advancement Project National Office, explains that, “Judges have the power to protect public safety in the COVID-19 pandemic by reviewing bail for all people currently held in the jail and releasing as many people as possible. We know that jails are incapable of providing adequate healthcare in general, let alone during an outbreak like we’re seeing today. People in the jail, those who work there, and the general public are at greater risk if we leave people inside than if we let them return home.” He added that, “Wealth based pretrial detention criminalizes poverty, destroys lives, and exacerbates already existing systemic racism in the criminal legal system. The Justice Project at Advancement Project is proud to use litigation, policy advocacy, communications and coalition-building strategies to assist community partners and allies in transforming policing and abolishing the criminalization of poverty and race.”
“As cities across the nation begin to decarcerate people, we hope this motion inspires St. Louis to follow suit,” said Kayla Reed, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Action St. Louis.
“Nearly three years ago, we started leading community bail outs so that money didn’t stand in the way of someone’s freedom, someone’s job, or someone’s family. This is the latest challenge to an unjust system that tears families and communities apart.”
“Global public health experts and medical professionals have expressed serious concerns about the spread of the virus in jails,” said Alec Karakatsanis, Founder and Executive Director of Civil Rights Corps. “We already know that the money bail system in St. Louis is flagrantly unconstitutional, and the number of people affected by this brutal system is far larger than we can technically count. The rights and lives of these people matter. We’re calling on state officials to protect the health of incarcerated individuals and the broader community and release them immediately.”
“It is unconstitutional to detain people before trial–while presumed innocent–solely because they can not afford to pay money bail,” said Mary McCord, legal director at ICAP and professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. “And it is unconscionable in this global health crisis to expose unconstitutionally detained individuals to increased risk of serious illness or death solely because they are poor. The relief we seek will ensure that people are detained before trial only where the state can prove that detention is necessary for public safety.”
This motion is the latest challenge to the criminal legal system in St. Louis, following litigation in 2017, the birth of the Close the Workhouse campaign in 2018, and the aforementioned 2019 motion. This lawsuit is part of a larger campaign to close the Workhouse. Action St. Louis leads the Close the Workhouse campaign along with ArchCity Defenders and the Bail Project-St. Louis. Advancement Project National Office is working with these grassroots partners as part of its national campaign to shine a light on the country’s reliance on incarceration and get communities to re-imagine public safety. In the case of this legal action, it is important to remember that people are released from jail each and every day to start again in society. This is no different.