Settlement Ends “Debtors’ Prison” and Misdemeanor Money Bail Systems in Jackson
The landmark settlement of a federal class action against the City of Jackson, Mississippi, has brought an end to the self-described “pay or stay” system alleged to have sent hundreds of people to the county jail each year because they could not pay fines and fees in misdemeanor cases (click here for a copy of the final judgment). The lawsuit challenged Jackson’s practice of sending impoverished people to jail when they failed to pay their court debts without regard for whether they actually had the financial ability to pay. Persons sent to jail under this system received credit toward their unpaid debts at a rate of $25 per day of incarceration at the Hinds County Jail, or $58 per day if they participated in the mandatory work program at the Hinds County Penal Farm. As a result of this practice, some people spent several months in jail while working off their debts. The City has agreed to give indigent defendants the choice of paying off their fines at the rate of $25 per month or performing community service and receiving credit toward their unpaid fines at the rate of $9 per hour.
In addition, Jackson no longer will require people arrested for misdemeanors to post a money bond in order to avoid pre-trial detention. Rather than releasing only those people who can afford to pay a bond and detaining those people who – although presumptively innocent – are too poor to pay their way out of jail, the city will release all people arrested for misdemeanors upon their written promise to appear in court on a specified date for a trial or other hearing. As an alternative to money bond, the city’s judges will have the option to place non-monetary pre-trial conditions on people arrested for misdemeanor offenses. For example, a judge might order a person accused of shoplifting to stay away from the location of the alleged misdemeanor until after the resolution of that person’s case.
The agreement is part of a settlement reached in the lawsuit filed by Equal Justice Under Law, a non-profit civil rights organization in Washington, D.C., and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law. The case was filed on behalf of seven Jackson residents who were ordered to jail by Jackson municipal judges for periods ranging from 26-90 days due to their inability to pay court debts imposed in misdemeanor cases.
Last year, Equal Justice Under Law and the MacArthur Justice Center also negotiated a settlement of a federal class action lawsuit against the City of Moss Point, Mississippi that brought an end to the use of money bail in misdemeanor cases prosecuted there.