By: Prof. Phil Broadhead
The City of Moss Point, Mississippi, has agreed to stop the practice of jailing citizens while they wait to appear in court on misdemeanor charges, such as disorderly conduct or public intoxication. The settlement agreement was reached in a federal civil rights class action lawsuit filed by the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law. Under the challenged cash bail system, two defendants charged with the same alleged offense were treated differently based only on their wealth: those who could afford to post bail were released, while those who were too poor to pay remained jailed at the City’s expense. Several cities in Mississippi use similar money bail systems, and could face similar class action lawsuits, according to the MacArthur Justice Center, who partnered with Equal Justice Under Law, a non-profit civil rights organization in Washington, D.C.
Chief Judge Louis Guirola Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, entered a declaratory judgment finding that the practice in Moss Point “implicates the protections of the Equal Protection Clause when such [an arbitrary bail] schedule is applied to the indigent. No person may, consistent with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, be held in custody after an arrest because the person is too poor to post a monetary bond. If the government generally offers prompt release from custody after arrest upon posting a bond pursuant to a schedule, it cannot deny prompt release from custody to a person because the person is financially incapable of posting such a bond.”
“We commend the leaders of Moss Point for the seriousness with which they approached this problem and their prompt response,” said Cliff Johnson, Director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law. “In addition to ending a policy that mandated the harmful and unnecessary detention of poor people at the City’s expense, they saved Moss Point taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Johnson said the money bail system previously in place in Moss Point is not unusual in Mississippi and that similar litigation against other Mississippi cities is likely. “We recognize that Moss Point was not alone in the use of this unlawful practice,” Johnson said. “We hope that other Mississippi cities and counties will follow the example of Moss Point and immediately cease the incarceration of their poorest citizens simply because they do not have the money to pay bail imposed without any consideration of their financial condition.”