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Poor and Mentally Ill Languish in Mississippi Jails for Months or Years Awaiting Indictments

by David M. Reutter

Some people arrested on felony charges in Mississippi face months, a year or even longer in jail before they are indicted. Some are never indicted before their release. All have one thing in common: they are too poor to afford an attorney or post bond.

According to a 2015 study funded by the Mississippi legislature, 55 percent of felony cases in Hinds County are resolved without an indictment, which rarely takes less than 90 days. A review of the Hinds County jail roster by the Clarion-Ledger on August 18, 2016 found that 18 percent, or 139 detainees, were not indicted within three months of being jailed. In October of that year, 60 of those detainees still had not been indicted.

The Clarion-Ledger found that most of the 139 detainees were “young and black.” Because they were poor, they were assigned overburdened public defenders who have 300 to 400 cases each. Of those detainees, the 79 who were eventually indicted waited more than five months; some waited a year or more.

The delays can cause tensions to boil over. As reported in PLN, a 2014 riot at the Hinds County jail left one prisoner dead and seven injured. According to state Senator John Horhn, the detainee who began the riot had been waiting almost a year and a half to be indicted. [See: PLN, Oct. 2015, p.50].

While the Jackson Municipal Court reached a settlement to address delays for detainees at the Hinds County jail awaiting resolution of misdemeanor offenses, the agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice did not include defendants charged with felonies. [See: PLN, Jan. 2017, p.40].

The responsibility for obtaining indictments falls on the prosecution, but District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith said delays are justified by the need to present a thorough case to the grand jury.

“We can present the case when it becomes available, when it’s completed,” Smith said. “There are times when the case may not come over ... but it’s not because someone has been in custody for an unreasonable amount of time with no charges.”

“We’ve had more successes with the presentation and prosecution of cases than what others may consider failures,” added Jackson Police Department Deputy Chief Amy Barlow. “What we need to do is everything we can give [the DA’s office], what they need, for successful prosecution and make sure we have a complete investigation when we send it over there.”

Her boss, Commander Tyree Jones, was blunt in his comments: “Let me clear this up for you, ok? Let’s clear that air now. It’s not an issue.... It’s just not. We’re sending good work over, and in return, we’re getting success in getting individuals indicted.”

Senator Horhn found those responses frustrating.

“When I talk to folks in law enforcement or in the judicial system, they are quick to point out, ‘look, I did my job,’” he said. “You know, I got it to this point. I did what I was supposed to do, and what happens after that is, that’s not in my lane. I’m staying in my lane.”

But for all the focus on their successes, Mississippi prosecutors and police officials have also produced some noteworthy failures.

Ivory Robinson was arrested and charged with burglary of a business in August 2013. He spent 467 days in the Hinds County jail before being released on his own recognizance. He was never indicted.

Christopher Grubbs got lost in the system following his 2011 arrest on an aggravated assault charge. He spent five years in jail and state hospitals without being indicted, until the Clarion-Ledger inquired about him.

Mental illness also kept Steven Jessie Harris in the Clay County jail for most of the 11 years he was held there. Except for a trip to a state mental hospital – where his schizophrenia was diagnosed – he remained in the jail on a murder charge from his 2005 arrest until District Attorney Scott Colom took office in 2016 and discovered the case had, as he put it, “fallen through the cracks.”

Though Harris had been indicted, his trial was twice postponed when it was determined he was mentally incompetent. After the last determination of incompetence in 2010, he remained in jail six years until Colom had him moved to a state mental health facility.

“To keep a mentally ill person in jail for 11 years is a disgrace,” remarked Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Virginia. “It is exactly what we did in the 1830s and 1840s before we built state mental hospitals to be more humane.”

According to Dr. Torrey, jails have become places to hold the mentally ill. Two-thirds of detainees at the Hinds County jail have been prescribed anti-psychotic drugs. Budget cuts have reduced the number of beds in Mississippi mental hospitals from 2,000 to 1,500 since 2008, creating a tragic situation that Clay County Sheriff Eddie Scott described in bleak terms.

“You carry them there, and before you can get the car cut off good, you have to go back and pick them up,” he said.

“There really has to be some consideration given to the fact that these individuals are simply charged with crimes but haven’t been convicted of anything,” stated Hinds County Public Defender Michele Purvis. “As a community, as a state, as a nation, we should be working to make sure that no one is held or incarcerated for an extraordinary amount of time when they haven’t been convicted of anything.” 

Source: The Clarion-Ledger


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