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SPLC lawsuit settlement ends debtors' prison in Corinth, Mississippi

Brian Howell, an unemployed man whose leg was amputated following a car accident, was assessed over $1,000 in court fines for three traffic violations in the city of Corinth, Mississippi.

He told a judge he could not pay right away because he was seeking Social Security disability payments, but the judge sent him to jail anyway, in lieu of paying the fines – at a rate of $25 per day – totaling about 50 days behind bars.

But Howell, 28, was released from jail nine days later, after the SPLC filed a federal, class-action lawsuit alleging that the city was running a modern-day debtors’ prison. The suit was filed on behalf of people like Howell who were jailed, often for weeks, solely because they were unable to pay fines or money bail for minor charges.

The SPLC and the MacArthur Justice Center, which jointly filed the suit, proposed a settlement agreement with the city on April 26. Under the agreement, which the federal court approved on July 6, the city will ensure that defendants arrested without a warrant see a judge within 48 hours.

The city will also stop jailing defendants who cannot afford to pay a fine or money bail, will release most people on their own recognizance following arrest, and will allow defendants who are unable to pay their fines in full to choose between a $25 monthly payment plan and community service.

“I have kids and a family that depend on me,” Howell said. “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.”

Sam Brooke, deputy legal director for the SPLC, said: “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. The proposed settlement 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.”

Also under the agreement, the municipal court judge will evaluate a defendant’s financial condition prior to imposing any fines or costs, as required by law. Defendants who cannot immediately pay fines in full, as per the court’s assessment of their finances, will have the option of paying in installments not to exceed $25 per month, or performing community service. The court will also appoint a public defender to represent any defendant at a show-cause hearing prior to holding a person in contempt for failing to pay or appear.

The agreement also addresses how the court will handle people who fail to appear for a scheduled court appearance following their arrest and release. The court will reschedule the court date and mail a summons to appear in court upon a first failure to appear, rather than issuing an arrest warrant.

Corinth has also agreed not to arrest or incarcerate any person with an existing failure-to-pay warrant. Any person stopped with an outstanding failure-to-pay warrant will be given a summons to appear in court.

The city of Corinth will also provide training to all employees who are involved in implementing the agreement.

Last year, the Mississippi Supreme Court adopted new court rules that detail procedures for courts to follow when addressing inability to pay. Mississippi also passed a law earlier this year clarifying that no one can be jailed for failing to pay fines or court costs, unless a court has first examined their ability to pay.

The SPLC and the MacArthur Justice Center filed suit against Corinth in December, after a year-long investigation found that the municipal court routinely held people facing misdemeanor or municipal charges in jail until they paid money bail or their fine, without taking into account their ability to pay.