JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI – The “pay or stay” system of Jackson has come to an end following a landmark settlement reached by the petitioners and Mississippi's capital city.
The federal class-action lawsuit filed by seven plaintiffs against the city was concluded amicably, with the defendants agreeing to pay $128,400 as settlement payment. The landmark case, which now disallows Jackson from detaining misdemeanor offenders despite the latter’s inability to pay their fine, is hoped to set a precedent to other districts in the state.
“It violates the Constitution to incarcerate an individual, either before or after trial, solely because an individual does not have the ability to make a monetary payment,” said Judge Tom S. Lee of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi in the declaratory judgment, according to a press release.
He added, “Based upon this constitutional principle, no individual may be held in jail for nonpayment of fines, fees, and/or costs imposed by a court without a determination, following a meaningful inquiry into the individual’s ability to pay, that the individual willfully refuses or willfully failed to make payment. The meaningful inquiry into the individual’s ability to pay includes, but is not limited to, notice and an opportunity to present evidence.”
Under the settlement terms, Jackson is prohibited from sending indigent offenders to jail – a practice that had been observed in the city for more than a decade. Instead, the offenders who cannot pay their court fines would be provided with two options. They can either opt to pay their fines at a rate of $25 per month or perform community service. The choice to undergo community service will merit credits to their debts at $9 per hour.
Apart from this, a money bond to avoid pre-trial detention will also no longer be a requirement for those arrested for misdemeanors in the capital city. Following this case, Jackson is mandated to release the individuals and will only seek a written promise from them to attend their court hearing, trial or any other obligation on a specified date. So instead of posting a money bond, the judges of the city will be provided with the option to set non-monetary pre-trial terms.
The lawsuit was filed by Equal Justice Under Law and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law on behalf of the seven Jackson residents who were ordered to be incarcerated due to their inability to pay their court debts. The petitioners were meted punishments ranging from 26 to 90 days of jail time by Jackson municipal judges prior to the settlement.
“We applaud Mayor (Tony) Yarber, the City Council, and the City Attorney’s Office for taking seriously the allegations in our lawsuit and the realities facing so many Jacksonians who struggle mightily just to make ends meet,” said Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law, according to the press release.
Johnson added, “Because Jackson’s leaders recognized the need to change Jackson’s practices and agreed to a voluntary resolution of our lawsuit, the city avoided paying us hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys' fees and saved the city from huge class action damages. That money now can be used instead to improve the Jackson community.”
He further noted that the city’s decision to acknowledge and take action on the plight of the indigent offenders in the area should serve as an inspiration to other districts. Johnson shared his hope that other cities and counties would adopt the same changes, prompting them to look into the plight of the poor individuals arrested instead of immediately throwing them in jail.