The Current

Civil rights lawyers sue Ferguson over 'debtors' prisons'

A lawsuit filed last week is shedding light on one source of racial tensions in Ferguson. The suit concerns the city's alleged use of so-called "debtors' prisons" -- the practice of jailing people too poor to pay for minor fines, such as traffic offenses.
A demonstrator in front of the Ferguson police department in November 2014. Lawyers allege that the cities of Ferguson and nearby Jennings are routinely violating their citizens' civil rights by locking people up for unpaid fines -- a practice that hits the poor, and people of colour, especially hard. (Getty Images/Justin Sullivan)

A lawsuit filed last week is shedding light on one source of racial tensions in Ferguson. The suit concerns the city's alleged use of so-called "debtors' prisons" — the practice of jailing people too poor to pay for minor fines, such as traffic offences.

These policies make people poor - and they keep people poor.- Michael-John Voss, lawyer

Lawyers allege that the cities of Ferguson and nearby Jennings are routinely violating their citizens' civil rights by locking people up for unpaid fines -- a practice that hits the poor, and people of colour, especially hard.

And the issue of local governments squeezing the poor for municipal revenue goes far beyond Ferguson and Jennings. It affects hundreds of communities across the United States.

To find out more, we were joined by:

  • Michael-John Voss is the co-founder and managing attorney of ArchCity Defenders.
  • Chris Albin-Lackey is a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch in New York City. He authored the 2014 report, "Profiting from Probation: America's 'Offender-Funded' Probation Industry."

Let us know what you think.

Tweet us @thecurrentcbc. Or e-mail us through our website. Find us on Facebook. Call us toll-free at 1 877 287 7366. And as always if you missed anything on The Current, grab a podcast.

This segment was produced by The Current's Shannon Higgins and Marc Apollonio.

now