Debtors prisons vanished from most of the US in the 1830s, but Ferguson, Mo., is still routinely locking up people who can't afford to pay fines, according to a group of civil rights lawyers suing the city. A pair of lawsuits accuses Ferguson and Jennings, another St. Louis suburb, of unconstitutionally jailing people for nonpayment of traffic fines and other minor offenses without considering whether they're able to pay, reports NPR. The Ferguson suit accuses the city, which has a population of 21,000 and issued nearly 33,000 arrest warrants in 2013, of building a municipal scheme "designed to brutalize, to punish, and to profit." Court fines and fees are Ferguson's second-biggest source of income, making up around 21% of its budget.
Plaintiffs say they end up caught in a cycle of fines, penalties, and jailings in unsanitary, overcrowded municipal facilities. "Anytime I go outside, I fear that I'll be stopped by the police," a 23-year-old woman who has been locked up repeatedly over the last five years over traffic tickets tells the New York Times. "You drive to work so you can pay the fines, but then you get pulled over, so you owe even more," she says. But since the Michael Brown shooting six months ago, the city has taken a few steps toward reform, including a proposal to cap revenue from traffic tickets and an "amnesty" in which people can pay $100 to have arrest warrants lifted before agreeing to a new payment plan, reports NPR.