JACKSON — Another Mississippi city is settling a lawsuit with civil rights lawyers by agreeing to change how it jails poor people.
In a federal court settlement filed Wednesday, Corinth officials promise that arrestees will see a judge within 48 hours, as state rules require; that most people on misdemeanor charges will be released without having to pay money up front for bail; and that bail for a handful of violent misdemeanor offenses will be set according to the defendant’s ability to pay.
People who can’t afford to pay fines in full will be allowed to pay installments or perform community service to avoid jail. The city’s previous practice had been to send defendants who couldn’t immediately pay fines less than $300 to jail, erasing $25 a day from the total for every day they spent locked up.
“Nothing in this says poor people don’t have to obey the law or pay their fines,” said Cliff Johnson of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law. “They just get additional time to pay their fines and don’t have to go to jail because they’re poor.”
Those who have the ability to pay can eventually be jailed, and will earn credits at $100 a day. But no one with outstanding warrants for fine will be arrested. Instead they will be summoned to court.
The phenomenon of jailing large numbers of people before trial, often because they can’t afford bail or a private lawyer, is widespread in Mississippi.
A survey the MacArthur Justice Center released earlier this week — given first to The Associated Press — shows that more than one-third of all of those in jail awaiting trial on primarily felony charges had been there for 90 or more consecutive days. More than 600 had been in jail longer than a year.
MacArthur and the Southern Poverty Law Center previously have sued and won changes in Mississippi jurisdictions including Biloxi, Jackson, Moss Point and Scott County.
Lawyers for both groups praised Corinth’s willingness to cooperate, saying the city had changed practices and released some people from jail even before the settlement was reached.
One of the two named plaintiffs, 28-year-old Brian Howell, said in a statement that he faced more than $1,000 in fines for three traffic violations. Municipal Judge John Ross ordered Howell to jail, and he could have spent more than 50 days there. However, Howell was released shortly after the suit was filed.
“I have kids and a family that depend on me,” Howell said in a statement. “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.”
A lawyer for the city didn’t immediately respond to a phone call seeking comment.
Those suing also filed a state judicial complaint against Ross for ignoring state rules rolled out last summer, including a requirement that those arrested be given an initial hearing within 48 hours, and be provided with a lawyer if they are facing jail time.
Johnson said that complaint is in the hands of the state Judicial Performance Commission.
Mississippi lawmakers this year enacted a law that says no indigent person can be jailed for failing to pay fines. That law takes effect July 1.