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MacArthur Justice Center, SPLC Sue City of Corinth and Judge for Running Debtors’ Prison

CORINTH, Miss. – 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, according to a federal class-action lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law.

“Even though debtors’ prisons have been outlawed in this country for more than 200 years, Corinth is running a jail from the Dark Ages in one of the nation’s poorest regions – it’s shameful,” said Sam Brooke, deputy legal director for the SPLC.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi Aberdeen Division, describes how 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, without taking into account their ability to pay, as required by law.

Brian Keith Howell, a 28-year-old man who lost a leg in a car accident, was arrested Nov. 27 on a warrant for traffic violations. He spent six days in jail before his first court appearance because he could not afford the $1,250 cash bond needed to secure his release. On Dec. 4, Judge Ross informed Howell that he owed the court over $1,000, and had to pay the amount or sit out his time in jail – 50 days.

“Mr. Howell tried to tell the judge that he was working on getting disability and could not pay the fine right away, but Judge Ross wouldn’t listen,” Brooke said.  “Judge Ross just told Mr. Howell his fine amount and sent him back to jail.”

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.

Sammy Dwight Brown, a 35-year-old man living on a small disability check, was arrested on Dec. 1 for public intoxication. Currently, his bail is set at $600 and he will have to wait until Dec. 11 for a hearing because the police hadn’t processed his paperwork in time for what should have been his initial court appearance on Dec. 4. The Mississippi Rules of Criminal Procedure requires an initial hearing within 48-hours of arrest for any person who is not released on their own recognizance.

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 a sizeable down payment. If the individual cannot make payment, 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, according to a SPLC investigation.

The SPLC and MacArthur Justice Center 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 fees.

Latonya James, an unemployed mother, appeared before Judge Ross on Aug. 14 for a school attendance violation charge involving her daughter who is struggling with bipolar disorder. In July, Judge Ross ordered James to pay $100 toward her fine of $163.25 by August 14. When she informed Judge Ross that she could not make the payment, he gave her a notice to hand to the clerk’s office that read, “$100 today or jail.”

The illegal practices of Judge Ross and the Corinth Municipal Court are especially problematic because the Mississippi Supreme Court recently passed new rules designed to 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.

“Despite being told repeatedly by the Mississippi Supreme Court and the Mississippi Judicial College to stop locking up Mississippians who are too poor to pay their fines in large lump sums and are not able to buy their way out of jail by paying a pre-determined amount of money bail, a disturbing number of judges in Mississippi defiantly refuse to comply with the law,” said Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law.  “The MacArthur Justice Center and other civil rights organizations like the SPLC will keep filing lawsuits and judicial performance complaints until these judges, and the cities and counties that ratify and facilitate their practices, decide to abide by the law and the express instructions of Mississippi’s highest court.”    

Lawyers for the SPLC and the MacArthur Justice Center submitted a separate complaint regarding Judge Ross’s conduct to the Commission on Judicial Performance, as part of their legal obligation under the Mississippi Rules of Professional Conduct.

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The Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Alabama with offices in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi, is a nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society. For more information, see www.splcenter.org.

 The Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center is a public interest law firm with offices in Chicago (Northwestern Law School), St. Louis, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Oxford, Mississippi (University of Mississippi School of Law). The MacArthur Justice Center litigates a wide range of civil rights cases, with particular emphasis in the area of criminal justice.

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