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City to stop arresting and jailing people for unpaid fines

April 3, 2019

MERIDIAN, Miss. (AP) — Another Mississippi city has agreed to change the way it jails poor people after it was threatened with litigation.

The Meridian City Council approved a consent agreement on Tuesday on a 3-2 vote. Under the terms of the deal, the city will stop arresting people for old fines, stop jailing them when they can’t afford to pay, and stop requiring defendants to post bail after misdemeanor arrests.

The MacArthur Justice Center and Southern Poverty Law Center sought the agreement after investigating court procedures in the east Mississippi city. The advocacy groups previously won changes to jail and bail practices in Biloxi, Corinth, Jackson, Moss Point and Scott County.

“When people are punished for their inability to pay fines and fees, jurisdictions have effectively made it a crime to be poor,” SPLC staff attorney Caren Short said in a statement.

Meridian Police Chief Bennie Dubose told The Meridian Star he concluded that the city couldn’t win a lawsuit, but said he disliked the changes.

“If an individual is unemployed and chooses to be a career criminal, what punishment is there for them? Dubose asked. “You can’t make them work. You can’t put them in jail because they can’t financially pay their fines.... They didn’t give us any alternatives.”

The agreement says that no one can be jailed “solely because of the inability to pay.” It also says that a municipal judge can’t make release from jail contingent on payment of fines unless someone is represented by a lawyer at a hearing and a judge determines the person has the ability to pay. The city agreed to presume people are indigent if they’re on public assistance, living in public housing or making an income less than 125% of the federal poverty level.

Cliff Johnson of the MacArthur Center said too often defendants are threatened with jail unless they come up with money immediately. Johnson said relatives or church members frequently scrape up money to keep poor people out of jail.

“It’s a mama and grandmamma tax,” Johnson said.

A judge must limit a payment plan for people who are indigent to $25 a month. If ordering community service instead, a judge can’t impose more than 40 hours, and can’t require more than 12 hours a month.

The city must modify current payment plans to meet those limits. In cases where someone is being jailed for willful non-payment of fines, the city must credit the person with $100 of the fine for each day served, up from $56 now.

Meridian agreed to release most people who are arrested on misdemeanor charges as soon as possible. Those charged with domestic violence, assault or making a threat can be jailed up to 48 hours before a hearing. But the city can only require cash bail if it there’s no other way to assure someone’s appearance or public safety.

People who violate release conditions or fail to appear a second time can still be jailed until their case is concluded.

Johnson expressed frustration that despite a string of lawsuits, city and county courts persist in bail and fine practices that he calls “illegal” and “morally repugnant.”

“There are a lot of judges out there who keep doing the same thing,” Johnson said.

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