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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Gloria Oladipo

Ferguson, Missouri, to pay out $4.5m to settle debtors’ jail lawsuit

people march in the street as lightning flashes in the sky
Protesters march in the street following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on 20 August 2014. Photograph: Jeff Roberson/AP

The city of Ferguson, Missouri, will pay out $4.5m to thousands of plaintiffs who allege that the city jailed them because of their inability to pay fines, fees and other municipal costs.

The multimillion-dollar settlement is in response to a class-action lawsuit filed against Ferguson in 2015, the legal advocacy non-profit ArchCity Defenders announced on Tuesday. Ferguson officials were accused of “jailing [plaintiffs] in deplorable conditions for an inability to pay and without the necessary legal process”, read the press release.

“We are so proud of our plaintiffs for having stuck through nine years of litigation to achieve a settlement on behalf of an entire class of people whose rights were impacted by the allegations in this lawsuit,” Maureen Hanlon, managing attorney at ArchCity Defenders, said.

The settlement amount will be paid out to more than 15,000 people who were jailed by the city of Ferguson between 8 February 2010 and 30 December 2022 over unpaid fees.

The amount a person received will be proportioned to the number of hours they spent in the city’s jail.

Nine plaintiffs were named in the class-action lawsuit, including 59-year-old Ronnie Tucker. In 2013, Tucker was arrested and jailed because of his inability to pay hundreds of dollars needed to secure his release. Ferguson officials did not inquire about Tucker’s ability to pay the fines or grant him access to a lawyer.

Hanlon said many of the plaintiffs were jailed for days at a time due to their inability to pay.

At least two of the plaintiffs named in the lawsuit have died since the case was first filed nearly nine years ago. Keilee Fant was jailed more than a dozen times between the ages of 17 to 37 because of her inability to pay fines.

In 2022, Fant, who died before the settlement, spoke about how her repeated detentions had an impact on her.

“I’m still affected, it has taken a lot out of me,” she said, according to the press release. “It was so inhumane that people couldn’t believe it when it actually did go on.”

Another plaintiff, Tonya DeBerry, died in 2018. DeBerry’s daughter, Allison Nelson, said that her mother was never able to get “a piece of this justice”. Nelson is also a named as a plaintiff in the suit.

“Keilee Fant and Tonya DeBerry were loving mothers whom we will remember for their boundless courage in the face of injustice,” Hanlon said in the press release. “The harsh reality is that, oftentimes, those most impacted by injustice do not live long enough to see the seeds of change bloom. But this settlement would not be possible without them.”

The latest payout comes nearly 10 years after the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a white Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson. The killing of Brown ignited nationwide demonstrations over the treatment of Black people by police and prompted a US Department of Justice investigation into the city’s police department.

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