Documentary examines County court system

The 27th Annual St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF) celebrated diversity in media with local filmmakers who help push social change and justice.

The 10-day festival had screenings throughout the St. Louis region, including the Missouri History Museum. Sunday night, SLIFF featured eight mini documentaries, each telling the complex stories of the black experience in America.

Renee Fussell  of Caseyville, IL, attended last year’s festival  said it was awesome, and this year she was really inspired by the film directors’ hard work, dedication and all they are doing to make a difference.

“I’m going to go home and talk to people and tell them what I learned and hopefully that will inspire them too,” said Fussell.

“A Debtor’s Prison”, one of the mini documentaries featured at the museum, tells the story of Meredith Walker and Samantha Jenkins. Filmmakers Brett Story and Todd Chandler give a closer look at the judicial system of the 88 municipalities in St. Louis County, and how their practices affect the community at large.

Both Walker and Jenkins are victims and survived their experiences in these municipal court systems. Both women have been harassed, racially profiled and victimized by the cash bail system. Both Walker and Jenkins have been represented by Arch City Defenders, a local non-profit civil rights law firm that offers an integrated approach to fighting systemic injustice. 

For 10 years, Walker experienced the strain and stress many St. Louisans feel today from some St. Louis County police officers. As a result of being pulled over and ticketed for minor offenses such as a tail light out or driving uninsured, back-to-back court dates caused Walker to miss work and miss out on time spent with her two children. Walker is a single parent who has been jailed close to 15 times and has had fines adding up to $15,000 dollars. 

Walker  believes these things are done in predominantly black communities to intimidate and collect revenue. She added they are squeezing the residents of St. Louis until they are drained dry.

Walker urges the community to remind law enforcement they are civil servants, and not to over-police. 

“In the past, we didn’t have organizations to help us. Organizations like Action St. Louis and Arch City Defenders helps empower us without breaking the bank,” said Walker.

She explained that the legal team represented her for free, and did a better job in defending her case than the lawyers in the past whom she paid.

With a smile on her face, Walker said the Arch City Defenders represented her with as much compassion and care as if she gave them a million dollars.

Before the non-profit legal team, Walker was overwhelmed with fines and fees, and it impacted her ability to find  employment. Walker wanted to work with children, specifically for the Division of Family Services and the Division of Youth Services. In the line of work she wanted to do, she would need a valid driver’s license. For  five years she was unable to do the work she is most passionate about.

For many years, Walker felt embarrassed about the things she was going through with St. Louis County police. She vividly remembers taking a variety of routes when driving just to avoid law enforcement. 

However, going from shame to wearing her experience as a badge of honor, Walker feels it is necessary to share her story.  

Now, Walker has her license back, has her own car, and can proudly say she drives freely through the city and county without fear or anxiety.

Ashley Winters

Author: Ashley Winters

Ashley Winters is a staff reporter at The NorthSider. She's a north St. Louis native and a graduate of Columbia College Chicago. In the near future she plans to write and publish children's books. She can be reached at ashley.winters@thenorthsider.com

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