Friday, March 31, 2023

UM MacArthur Justice Center Helps End Jackson’s ‘Debtors’ Prison’

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 10.54.04 AMThe Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law and a Washington-based civil rights group have negotiated a settlement to end a “debtors’ prison” system in Jackson that jailed the impoverished for not being able to pay fines.

The MacArthur Justice Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of seven Jackson residents jointly with the nonprofit Equal Justice Under Law. Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center, thanked Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber, the City Council and the city attorney’s office for their work on the agreement.

“Because Jackson’s leaders recognized the need to change Jackson’s practices and agreed to a voluntary resolution of our lawsuit, the city avoided paying us hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees and saved the city from huge class action damages,” Johnson said. “That money now can be used instead to improve the Jackson community.”

The deal created several courtroom policy changes and also provided forgiveness of the seven plaintiffs’ debt to the city and a total of $128,400 in payments to them. Jackson municipal judges had locked up the defendants for a range of 26 to 90 days for failure to pay court debt – a practice a U.S. district judge deemed a violation of their constitutional rights.

The system was stacked against people who were struggling to afford food, much less be able to pay fines, Johnson said.

“The processes and procedures adopted by the capital city pursuant to our agreement are a model for the rest of the state,” Johnson added, “It is our hope that cities and counties throughout Mississippi will adopt these same practices rather than continuing to jail poor folks unjustly and forcing us to file lawsuits seeking millions of dollars in damages.”

Jackson has agreed to give indigent defendants the option of paying off fines at $25 per month or perform community service and receive credit toward their fines at $9 per hour. The city will also no longer require bond payments to avoid pre-trial jail time for those arrested for a misdemeanor.

Instead of releasing only those who can afford bond, judges can now release all defendants arrested for misdemeanors if they promise in writing to appear in court on a designated date.

City judges also have the choice to put nonfinancial pre-trial conditions on those arrested. For instance, if someone is arrested for shoplifting, they could be barred from the location of the alleged crime until the case is resolved.

The MacArthur Justice Center views the settlement as a major victory. The “pay or stay” system had been in place in Jackson for more than 10 years and attorneys estimate it sent hundreds of indigent persons to jail each year.

Those incarcerated had been given only $25 credit toward their fine for each day they spent in the Hinds County Jail. Those who worked in what was alleged to have been a mandatory work program at the county’s penal farm received $58-per-day credit.

U.S. District Judge Tom S. Lee, of Mississippi’s Southern District, entered a declaratory judgment in Bell v. City of Jackson, which said it’s a violation of the U.S. Constitution to send someone to jail, either before or after trial, just because they can’t pay.

“Based upon this constitutional principle, no individual may be held in jail for nonpayment of fines, fees, and/or costs imposed by a court without a determination, following a meaningful inquiry into the individual’s ability to pay, that the individual willfully refuses or willfully failed to make payment,” the judgement said. “The meaningful inquiry into the individual’s ability to pay includes, but is not limited to, notice and an opportunity to present evidence.”

Alec Karakatsanis, co-founder of Equal Justice Under Law, said settlement with Jackson is the latest in a series of successful challenges across the country.

“No human being should be kept in a cage because she cannot make a monetary payment,” Karakatsanis said. “The Constitution forbids it, and communities across the country are finally beginning to end the scourge of debtors’ prisons and money bail.”

Last year, the MacArthur Justice Center and Equal Justice Under Law also negotiated a settlement of a federal class action lawsuit against Moss Point. That accord ended requiring monetary bail for misdemeanor cases there.

Many other Mississippi cities still have similar judicial procedures, and the Jackson and Moss Point cases may pave the way for more change, said Jake Howard, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center at Ole Miss.

“It would be nice to see others fall in line voluntarily, but we know from experience that litigation often is necessary in order to get the attention of those in power,” Howard said.

Johnson said the MacArthur Justice Center’s work wouldn’t be possible without the support of UM Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter; Deborah Bell, dean and professor of law; and the university community. The law school’s clinical programs, which include the MacArthur Justice Center’s work, will continue to pursue important cases on behalf of the public, he said.

“I don’t think people are fully aware of the excellent clinical program we have at the law school and how we operate as a large public interest law firm, taking on issues ranging from criminal justice to fair housing to tax and transactional law to child protection,” Johnson said.

“The work being done by faculty and students through the clinical program is extremely important and impressive and I believe it is one of the many things that sets our law school apart from others.”

Courtesy of Michael Newsom and the Ole Miss News Desk 
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