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Class-action Settlement in Mississippi “Debtors’ Prison” Case

by Derek Gilna

In April 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) announced a settlement in a federal class-action suit filed against the city of Corinth, Mississippi that accused the municipality and its chief Municipal Court judge, John C. Ross, of running a “modern day debtor’s prison” that discriminated against poor defendants. The comprehensive settlement effectively ends the practice of forcing indigent defendants to sit in jail due to their inability to pay fines or cash bail for minor, non-violent offenses.

According to the lawsuit, under the challenged Municipal Court practices, “A person arrested for a misdemeanor or municipal charge will not be released from jail unless they pay a monetary amount predetermined by a bail schedule and without any consideration of ability to pay. The City does not bring an arrestee before a judicial officer for an initial appearance until the next scheduled court date, which is only held once per week.”

“Thus,” the complaint continued, “[w]hen court does occur and persons are adjudicated and given a fine, they are required to pay the entire fine or make a down-payment, and if they cannot do so they again are jailed, sitting out their fine at a rate of $25 per day. No inquiry into their ability to pay ever occurs.”

The settlement ends that practice, puts the municipal court system under federal court supervision for three years and mandates that the court comply with Mississippi state law. At an initial appearance, the law requires a judge to determine whether a defendant should be released on his or her personal recognizance, or subject to “the least onerous condition[s]” of release. Further, defendants who are arrested without a warrant must see a judge within 48 hours. Defendants will not be jailed if they cannot pay court-ordered fines or money bail; they can either agree to a monthly payment plan not to exceed $25 per month, or do community service work.

The SPLC also filed a complaint with the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance, alleging that Judge Ross did not “conduct an individualized determination of the conditions of release at initial appearances for people charged with misdemeanor and municipal offenses. Nor [did] Defendant Ross make any findings that a person can afford the secured bail amount set pursuant to the bail schedule, or that the secured bail ... will ensure public safety and court appearance.”

One defendant unable to pay court-ordered fines, Brian Howell, was ordered to serve around 50 days in jail. His leg had been amputated after a car accident and he was unemployed at the time. Howell was released from jail after the SPLC filed the class-action suit challenging the Municipal Court’s practices.

“I have kids and a family that depend on me,” he stated. “If I had been forced to sit in jail for those 50 days, I would have missed important days in their lives, including Christmas and birthdays. I’m relieved that no one in the city of Corinth will have to face that reality only because they don’t have the financial means to pay for their freedom.”

“We are more than pleased with the outcome of this case, and the willingness of defendants to enter into a collaborative process to address these issues rather than resort to further litigation,” said Sam Brooke, the SPLC’s deputy legal director. “The proposed settlement,” he continued, “will ensure that the Corinth Municipal Court stays focused on justice and fairness, and eliminates a two-tiered system of justice that previously punished people simply because they were poor. Now, everyone should be treated fairly.”

The district court closed the case on July 6, 2018 after granting the parties’ motion for settlement. In addition to the SPLC, the class members were represented by the MacArthur Justice Center; both parties were responsible for their own attorney fees and expenses. See: Brown v. City of Corinth, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Miss.), Case No. 1:17-cv-00204-DMB-DAS. 

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Related legal case

Brown v. City of Corinth