POLITICS

Following Lawsuit, Tiny St. Louis Suburb Ends Its 'Illegal' Bail System That Jailed The Poor

04/09/2015 02:54 pm ET | Updated Apr 09, 2015
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WASHINGTON -- The tiny St. Louis suburb of Velda City has agreed to end a cash-only fixed bail system that had kept poor people imprisoned for days if they were arrested for violations of its municipal code, according to a court filing.

Velda City "has agreed to end its use of a fixed cash bail schedule system," according to a court filing seeking to withdraw a request to have a federal judge temporarily stop the city from using the system.

Under the prior system, defendants who could not afford to pay a certain amount of money were held in jail for three days and would never get to appear before the city's municipal court judge. Under the new policy, Velda City "will release arrestees from its custody after booking on signature recognizance bonds without requiring payment of money up front to secure release from custody," according to the filing.

Both sides are working together to resolve other issues raised in the case, the court filing stated.

ArchCity Defenders, a group that has helped call attention to the practices of municipal courts in St. Louis County, and Equal Justice Under Law, an organization that has successfully challenged bail systems, filed the federal civil rights lawsuit against Velda City on behalf of a 26-year-old mother of two who was arrested last week. "I'm excited there is finally change," the woman, Donya Pierce, said in a text message Thursday. She said she hoped the new system would give people a chance to pay their tickets.

The two organizations have also sued both Ferguson and nearby Jennings for running what they describe as debtor's prisons. Jennings is negotiating with ArchCity Defenders and Equal Justice Under Law to resolve the issues raised in the lawsuit, while Ferguson is fighting to have the case dismissed.

Velda City sits on roughly one-sixth of a square mile and has just 1,400 residents. The city brings in more revenue from fines and fees than it does from either sales taxes or property taxes. Officers make an average of under $27,000 per year, while the police chief makes less than the average officer in nearby Ferguson. Multiple former officers from the department have been charged with excessive force and abusing their power.

The city's municipal court judge, Wesley Bell, was one of two black candidates recently elected to city council in Ferguson. Bell, who previously told The Huffington Post that he had not been pressured to raise revenue in his role as municipal court judge in Velda City, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

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