The city of Corinth, Mississippi and Municipal Court Judge John C. Ross are operating 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 to stop the practice. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi Aberdeen Division. It describes how Judge Ross and the city of Corinth routinely violate the constitutional rights of people facing misdemeanor or municipal charges by holding them in jail until they pay bail money or their fine, without taking into account their ability to pay, as the law requires.
Because Judge Ross only holds court on Mondays, people who have been arrested can languish in jail for a week or longer before their initial court appearance to determine probable cause and assess conditions of release.
Once defendants make it to court, Judge Ross asks if they admit to or deny the charges. Persons who admit to the charges are assessed a fine and required to pay at least a sizeable down payment. If the individual cannot pay, they are required to sit out their fine at a rate of $25 per day. Judge Ross makes no inquiry into their ability to pay, and does not inform them of their right to counsel prior to jailing them for non-payment, according to an SPLC investigation.
The SPLC and the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law have been investigating the court’s practices over the last year. Over the course of the investigation, the groups encountered many indigent defendants who were either threatened with jail time or spent a considerable amount of time in jail for their inability to pay court-imposed fines and costs.
The illegal practices of Judge Ross and the Corinth Municipal Court are especially problematic because the Mississippi Supreme Court recently passed new rules designed specifically to prohibit these practices. The Rules of Criminal Procedure set up detailed procedures for courts to follow when addressing inability to pay. The Corinth Municipal Court is ignoring them.
Lawyers for the SPLC and the MacArthur Justice Center also submitted a separate complaint regarding Judge Ross’ conduct to the Commission on Judicial Performance, as part of their legal obligation under the Mississippi Rules of Professional Conduct.