The city of St. Louis can no longer hold people in jail simply because they’re too poor to pay bail, a federal judge ruled last week. The decision was celebrated by the city’s civil rights advocates, who have argued for years that the city’s cash bail system was unconstitutional. But following the ruling—which gave city officials a week to hold new detention hearings for inmates in St. Louis’ two jails—Judge Audrey Fleissig has called out the city for not moving quickly enough to comply with the order.
Fleissig said she was “somewhat appalled” and “disappointed” in the city’s slow response, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She pointed out that her preliminary injunction was consistent with a Missouri Supreme Court ruling that was already scheduled to go into effect in a few weeks, on July 1. City officials had also seen the proposed order as early as February of this year and didn’t raise any objections about their ability to implement it prior to the June 11 decision.
Basically: they should have known, as they had plenty of notice, that they were going to have to hold new hearings.
To catch up with their obligations under the order, Fleissig is asking city judges to hold 30 hearings per day over the first three days of this week.
Lawyers for city officials asked Fleissig to put her order on hold “while they appealed, or to give them more time to comply, listing the number of defendants charged with murder, sex crimes and other offenses that would be subject to the ruling,” writes the Post-Dispatch.
To be clear, people charged with murder and other violent crimes wouldn’t necessarily be released under Fleissig’s ruling. It simply asks judges to hold new hearings for those detained to determine whether those inmates are dangers to the community if released, or likely to skip future court dates. If so, they would continue to be held in state custody.
For her part, Fleissig seemed surprised that defendants would be jailed without any of these assessments being made, which is what was happening in St. Louis. Instead, judges were setting high bonds, or setting no bail at all, as “de facto substitutes” for those assessments, the Post-Dispatch writes.
“I was hopeful that that was not how the system worked,” Fleissig said at a recent hearing.
From the Post-Dispatch:
Fleissig told lawyers on both sides to work together to prioritize hearings for those who did not receive even bond hearings and postpone hearings for those accused of murder who are unlikely to be released anyway.
Jacqueline Kutnik-Bauder, a lawyer with the nonprofit ArchCity Defenders, said that 11 people had been released as a result of hearings Friday, including two who had been in jail for six months. But she complained that there didn’t seem to be any movement by city judges to schedule more hearings.
In response, Fleissig proposed St. Louis judges hold 30 hearings per day at the beginning of this week so that those being held unjustly in the city’s jails could be freed. The judge also told the court she expects city officials and lawyers for the inmates to come up with a plan on how they’ll proceed and share it with her by Friday.
Fleissig’s ruling comes as a growing number of cities and states are considering alternatives to the money bond system, which criminal justice advocates say creates a two-tier, wealth-based detention system. In St. Louis in particular, a person’s ability to pay out their bond was often not considered, leaving inmates going “days or weeks without being granted a hearing to reduce their bond,” the Post-Dispatch wrote in an earlier article, citing inmates’ lawyers.
While they awaited bond hearings, St. Louis detainees lost jobs, homes, and became estranged from family, civil rights advocates argued.
Blake Strode, Executive Director of ArchCity Defenders, a criminal justice advocacy group and one of the parties that launched the lawsuit against St. Louis, applauded Fleissig’s decision last week, calling it a “critical first step in ending the current status quo of wealth-based detention.”
“At this very moment, there are hundreds of people detained in the City of St. Louis merely because of their poverty,” Strode said in a press release. “We are encouraged that the judge recognized the enormous human cost of the unconstitutional cash bail scheme in the City’s courts, and we are hopeful that this change in St. Louis’s pretrial detention policies will spare countless people unnecessary suffering now and in the future.”