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Federal judge says St. Louis jails can’t hold inmates unable to afford bail in underscore of new Supreme Court rules

St. Louis cannot continue to keep people in prison for simply being unable to afford bail, a federal judge ruled this week — a precursor to changes to bail conditions already made by the Missouri Supreme Court set to go into effect next month.

Earlier this year, the state’s highest court announced changes to pretrial detention, specifically requiring courts to move toward non-monetary conditions of release unless absolutely necessary. The changes will be fully implemented on July 1.

But before the changes could go into effect, a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction Tuesday, ruling St. Louis jails can no longer hold people only because of an inability to pay bail. Individuals can still be held if there’s “clear and convincing evidence” of a public safety threat or otherwise needed.  

U.S. District Judge Audrey Fleissig gave the state seven days to hold a hearing for those currently incarcerated at the City Justice Center or the Medium Security Institution — often referred to as the “Workhouse” — to present evidence of whether detention is necessary, with the burden of proof resting on the government. Those arrested since her ruling must have a hearing within 48 hours of the arrest.

Fleissig noted the upcoming changes made by the state Supreme Court — asking courts to first consider non-monetary release conditions and solidifying detained individuals have a right to a trial within seven working days to present evidence of his or her financial hardship.

But she said there was “ample evidence” pointing to bail being set by duty judges without considering the individual’s financial status as it was either not provided or the detained person was unable to speak during initial appearances. In other words: Judges aren’t necessarily adhering to existing rules or precedent.

“we need this preliminary injunction in order to have an additional layer of protection for people’s constitutional rights.”

Thomas Harvey, an attorney with the Advancement Project and part of the team that filed the lawsuit, heralded the judge’s decision as underscoring the soon-to-be in place new regulations as well as going a step further by ensuring courts clearly “articulate on the record what standard they are applying to make a determination that a person has to be held in preventative detention.”

“This judge has rightly indicated that simply because the Missouri Supreme Court has rules that are supposed to govern the actions of judges, doesn’t mean we can solely rely on that in order to ensure people’s constitutional rights are being protected,” Harvey told The Missouri Times.

“She’s saying just because these new rules are supposed to go into place, doesn’t mean the court is going to follow those rules,” he explained. “Therefore, we need this preliminary injunction in order to have an additional layer of protection for people’s constitutional rights.”

Harvey stressed the 48-hour window for a hearing should already be standard practice and alleged no one in that facility has been adequately granted a hearing.

“Now they have to go back and do things they should have done a long time ago,” he said.

Advancement Project and a bevy of other civil rights groups — ArchCity Defenders, Civil Rights Corps, and Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection — filed a lawsuit in January to challenge St. Louis handling of bail hearings. The suit was filed on behalf of David Dixon, Richard Robards, Jeffrey Rozelle, and Aaron Thurman.

“At this very moment, there are hundreds of people detained in the City of St. Louis merely because of their poverty,” Blake Strode, executive director of the nonprofit legal aid organization ArchCity Defenders, said in a statement. “This decision to grant a preliminary injunction is a critical first step in ending the current status quo of wealth-based detention.”

Harvey said he hopes the ruling will encourage others across Missouri — particularly in rural areas where the problem could be exasperated — to make sure judges and prosecutors are following rules.