St. Louis County police officers investigate the scene of a fatal police officer involved shooting on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014 in Jennings, Mo. St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said the officers fired a combined 25 shots at the suspect. The officers told Belmar the suspect tried to fire at them, but the rifle the suspect had, jammed. No casings from the suspect's .22-caliber rifle were found. This is the second fatal shooting of a black suspect by police in the region since the fatal August shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Mo., officer. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, David Carson)
St. Louis County police officers investigate the scene of a fatal police officer involved shooting on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014 in Jennings, Mo.  St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said the officers fired a combined 25 shots at the suspect. The officers told Belmar the suspect tried to fire at them, but the rifle the suspect had,  jammed. No casings from the suspect's .22-caliber rifle were found. This is the second fatal shooting of a black suspect by police in the region since the fatal August shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Mo.,  officer. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, David Carson)
(AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, David Carson)

Paul Hampel, ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

ST. LOUIS (STLToday.com)—Federal class-action lawsuits filed Sunday against the cities of Jennings and Ferguson allege that jails there operate as modern-day debtors’ prisons.

The suits were filed in U.S. District Court in St. Louis on behalf of 15 plaintiffs — referred to as “impoverished people” — who were jailed because they could not pay fines for traffic violations and other minor offenses.

“They were threatened, abused and left to languish in confinement at the mercy of local officials until their frightened family members could produce enough cash to buy their freedom or until city jail officials decided, days or weeks later, to let them out for free,” the complaint states.

The suits were filed on behalf of the plaintiffs by the non-profit legal organization Equal Justice Under Law, based in Washington, and the ArchCity Defenders, a local non-profit group; and by St. Louis University School of Law.

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