Tuesday, October 13, 2015
Equal Justice Under Law, a public-interest law firm in Washington, D.C., and the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law, say the City of Jackson is running a debtors' prison.
The groups announced today that they filed a federal class-action lawsuit in Jackson that, according to a news release, "challenges the City’s incarceration of hundreds of impoverished Jacksonians for failure to pay court debts from old traffic and misdemeanor cases, without conducting any meaningful inquiry into their ability to pay."
In a statement, city hall spokeswoman Shelia Byrd, wrote: “The City of Jackson, Mississippi, has been notified of a class action lawsuit filed by attorneys of the MacArthur Justice Center on behalf of seven named plaintiffs. The City of Jackson has not been served at this time, but thought it prudent to issue this statement. The City of Jackson does not operate a 'debtor’s prison,' and aims to treat all of its citizens fairly under the law.
"The City of Jackson does not imprison any citizen without statutory authority and the weighing of all factors, unlike surrounding municipalities who make it a practice to imprison individuals who cannot pay immediately. The attorneys for the MacArthur Justice Center have been in direct contact with Jackson’s Municipal Court and Office of the City Attorney. The City of Jackson has acted in good faith to try and work with this entity to resolve any concerns that any citizen would have. Nevertheless, the MacArthur Justice Center filed suit amidst the ongoing negotiations. The City of Jackson will vigorously defend against these unfounded claims. Again, it should be reaffirmed that the City of Jackson is committed to treating all of its citizens fairly and within the protection offered under the law.”
Alec Karakatsanis, co-founder of Equal Justice Under Law, said in a release that his group has filed similar lawsuits against several other cities, including Montgomery, Ala., and New Orleans, La.
“The ‘pay or stay’ system in Jackson, Miss., is as egregious as any system we have seen. Rather than taking seriously its obligation to determine the ability of its citizens to pay unpaid court debts and to use human caging only as a last resort, the City of Jackson locks up its poorest citizens for weeks and months at a time in a jail that is the subject of a Department of Justice investigation," he wrote.
Karakatsanis said that people incarcerated under the “pay or stay” system either “sit out” their debts to the City at the rate of $25 per day or “work off” their debts at the rate of $58 per day. According to Karakatsanis, the City typically receives no funds from those imprisoned other than the money extorted from desperate families of impoverished people, and the cost of incarceration is borne by Hinds County.
In 2014, after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Mo., a U.S. Justice Department investigation found a pattern of racial discrimination in the assessing of fines and jailing between whites and African Americans.
Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law, said that both the U.S. and the Mississippi Supreme Courts have already ruled that incarcerating people on their inability to pay fines is unlawful.
“As Mississippians, we understand the devastating reality of poverty," Johnson said in a statement. "We should not tolerate a system in which those with money pay their court debts and return to their comfortable homes while those who are poor and unable to pay are thrown into what essentially are debtors’ prisons. It is our sincere hope that the City of Jackson will cease this practice immediately and thereby set an example for the many other Mississippi cities engaged in the same or similar conduct.”