The city of Corinth, Mississippi, and Municipal Court Judge John C. Ross operated a modern-day debtors’ prison, unlawfully jailing poor people for their inability to pay bail and fines. The SPLC and another civil rights group filed a federal class action lawsuit that ended with a settlement agreement to stop the practice and ensure people arrested without a warrant see a judge within 48 hours.
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi, Aberdeen Division. It describes how the judge and the city routinely violated the constitutional rights of people facing misdemeanor or municipal charges by holding them in jail until they paid bail money or their fine, without taking into account their ability to pay as the law requires.
Because Ross only held court on Mondays, people may have languished in jail for a week or longer before their initial court appearance to determine probable cause and assess conditions of release. Once defendants made it to court, the judge asked if they admitted to or denied the charges.
People who admitted to the charges were assessed a fine and required to pay at least a sizeable down payment. If the individual could not pay, they were required to sit out their fine at a rate of $25 per day. Ross made no inquiry into their ability to pay. He also failed to inform them of their right to counsel before jailing them for nonpayment.
The SPLC and the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law had investigated the court’s practices over the course of a year. The groups encountered many indigent defendants who were either threatened with jail time or spent a considerable time in jail for their inability to pay court-imposed fines and costs.
The illegal practices were also troubling because the Mississippi Supreme Court had recently passed new rules designed to prohibit such practices. The Corinth Municipal Court ignored them.
In addition to the lawsuit, attorneys for the SPLC and the MacArthur Justice Center submitted a separate complaint regarding Ross’ conduct to the Commission on Judicial Performance – part of their legal obligation under the Mississippi Rules of Professional Conduct. The judicial conduct complaint is pending the commission’s review and determination.
Under the lawsuit settlement, the city will stop jailing defendants who cannot afford to pay a fine or money bail, will release most people on their own recognizance after arrest, and will allow defendants unable to pay their fines in full to choose between a $25 monthly payment plan and community service.
Also under the agreement, the municipal court judge will evaluate a defendant’s financial condition before imposing any fines or costs – as required by law. The court will appoint a public defender to represent any defendant at a show-cause hearing before 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 after their arrest and release. Rather than issue an arrest warrant, the court will reschedule the court date and mail a summons to appear in court upon a person’s first failure to appear. The city also agreed not to arrest or incarcerate any person with an existing failure-to-pay warrant. Anyone stopped with an outstanding failure-to-pay warrant will be given a summons to appear in court.