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Changing the courtroom in Meridian

City, criminal justice groups address being jailed for being poor

  • 11 min to read
Changing the courtroom in Meridian: City, criminal justice groups address being jailed for being poor

Paula Merritt / The Meridian Star

Advocacy groups argue that Meridian's municipal court was a system that tried to use its poorest residents as a source of city revenue through excessive fines and fees.

Attorneys, judges and politicians agree that no one should be jailed for being poor.

Advocacy groups, however, argue that Meridian's municipal court was a system that tried to use its poorest residents as a source of city revenue through excessive fines and fees.

"The way that a lot of cities in Mississippi and across the country are operating... they are attempting to fund courts and cities and counties on the backs of their poorest citizens," Caren Short, a senior staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said. "It's not just illegal. It's ineffective."

Short, along with other SPLC attorneys, and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, both legal advocacy centers, have combined their resources to investigate and pursue settlement agreements with cities in Mississippi, including Jackson, Corinth, Moss Post and more. Most recently, in April, the city of Meridian signed a cooperation agreement with the organizations.

But the city argues that the agreement asks for too much in a strained court system with one part-time judge and one pro tem judge.

"The cooperation agreement allows the pendulum, in my opinion, to swing too far, granting the defendant too many rights and steps in their path between a crime and resolution," Robbie Jones, the part-time municipal court judge for Meridian, said. "Thus making the court work less efficiently."

Agreement background

The SPLC and MacArthur Center said their investigation, which focused on misdemeanor charges, found that Meridian's Municipal Court didn't comply with federal or state law because it imprisoned people for failing to pay fines, essentially criminalizing poverty.

Meridian became the first city in Mississippi to voluntarily adopt the cooperative agreement on April 2 to avoid a potentially costly legal battle, which SPLC and MacArthur praised as a decision "to end the city's practice of incarcerating residents who are unable to pay fines and fees and to stop using secured bail money in misdemeanor cases."

The organizations said their investigation found that the municipal court didn't comply with state or federal law, criminalizing Meridian's impoverished.

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

Mayor Percy Bland vetoed the council's vote after discussing the agreement with Jones, who told him it would be difficult to operate under the agreement.

"It is unreasonable and going to cost the city a ton of money," Jones said to the City Council in April. "I'm not scared of the (SPLC), if they want to sue us they're going to sue us... We shouldn't incarcerate them, I agree. But we can't function without fines."

But the council overruled the concerns of Jones and Bland, voting unanimously to override the veto and adopt the agreement. As of late June, the court was in compliance with the cooperation agreement.

Alternatives to incarceration

The agreement works both proactively and retroactively, partially crediting those with outstanding court fines for time served and rescinding any existing failure-to-pay warrants.

"The problem with issuing a failure to pay warrant is that (it's) not giving the person the opportunity to come before a judge who can determine a person's reason for failing to pay," Short, the SPLC senior staff attorney, said. "For someone who makes a lot, a $100 fine isn't very punitive. But for someone who is indigent, that $100 is going to be very hard for them"

Changing the courtroom in Meridian: City, criminal justice groups address being jailed for being poor

Whitney Downard / The Meridian Star

Municipal Judge Robbie Jones deliberates a defendant's bond during a February preliminary hearing. 

Jones, with more than a decade in the municipal court, said he wasn't aware of any such arrests.

"I don't mind having indigent people not put in jail because they couldn't afford to pay the fine... (but) I don't know if we've ever done that," Jones said. "I don't know anybody that was put in jail simply because they couldn't pay. They might have gone to jail because they didn't pay. But not because they couldn't pay."

The Lauderdale County Sheriff's Department reported that at least 86 detainees had been charged and arrested by the Meridian Police Department for failure to pay between 2016 and 2019. The Meridian Municipal Court sends the majority of their inmates to the Neshoba-Kemper Regional Correction Facility.

The agreement dictates that Jones, and pro tem judge John Howell, now have to assess if a defendant willfully stopped paying their fines or simply couldn't pay under their current payment plan (emphasis in the agreement). Under the agreement, the judge must determine how much a defendant can afford before incarcerating someone for failure to pay.

Judges can ask for $25 per month from indigent defendants, which Jones estimates comprises about 80 percent of the defendants he sees in the courtroom. Defendants can opt into a community service program instead, which requires up to 12 hours per month from the court. Whether paying fines or doing community service, defendants can choose to commit more than ordered by the court.

The agreement says that the city must offer community service hours for those with a disability, such as desk work, in addition to something for able-bodied defendants. The court must also offer flexible options, so that defendants with caretaking responsibilities or jobs could participate.

"We encourage jurisdictions to think creatively about what they might accept as community service," Short said, adding that local charitable organizations could offer service opportunities.

Jones said that the courtroom didn't have the staff to supervise defendants for community service and that local agencies didn't want to accept the liability of working with defendants.

"It's great in theory (but) doesn't work in practice," Jones said. "To me, it's overkill. They've gone too far trying to look out after the defendant... I mean, if I can get up and work 40 hours a week, certainly eight or 10 hours a week wouldn't be too much for somebody."

Jones also criticized the $25 cap, saying it would take long periods of time to pay off even small fines.

"We just keep that unworkable cycle going," Jones said.

Changing the courts 

Cliff Johnson, the director of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, acknowledged that the process of repayment can be slow but said a state such as Mississippi, one of the poorest in the nation, needed to be conscious of how much its residents could afford.

Cliff Johnson

Cliff Johnson

"This is all part of a transformation from a time when courts in Mississippi were incarcerating people for unpaid fines... The city can't rely on its court system as a source of revenue and budget it such that it creates bad incentives," Johnson said. "We live in Mississippi. There's going to be a bunch of people who can't pay. Nobody has an extra $500 in Mississippi. It's one of the reasons we think judges should consider how much someone makes before (implementing) a fine."

During the city's budget audit earlier this month, accountant Paul Breazeale said that fines and forfeitures were down for the city, something that Bland highlighted as a cause for concern for the cash-strapped city.

"You have to collect those with a realistic view of what people can be expected to pay," Johnson said. "And that's frustrating for municipalities."

Jones said the agreement required that officers personally serve warrants, rather than mail them. These warrants would notify defendants about failure to pay or failure to appear in court. But Jones said courts had difficulty acquiring accurate addresses from defendants or delivering paperwork in other jurisdictions.

If they gave us the option of mailing it to the last known address, it would be a little simpler. But, to me, they made the agreement so oppressive for the government entity to implement," Jones said. 

Personally serving warrants is not unique to the agreement, but rather enshrined in the Mississippi Criminal Code 3.2(d), saying "The summons shall be served by personally delivering a copy of the summons to the defendant."

"This is what the very conservative Mississippi Supreme Court unanimously decided. This isn't a wide-eyed liberal idea," Johnson said. "So it's hard but it's the law."

Johnson said that the court took the notion of taking someone's liberty seriously, thus limiting the power of the government to file a warrant without properly notifying someone.

Jones, however, sees fault with the concept.

"We need police officers on the streets, fighting crime, and not serving papers," Jones said.

Jones estimated that in the courtroom alone he'd need four-to-five more full-time staff members, not counting any additional law enforcement officers serving papers.

"They got this lengthy financial agreement that they want everybody to fill out. Some of them can't write; some of them can't read," Jones said. "Who's gonna help them with all of that?"

Speaking generally, Johnson said that with courtrooms adopting these practices, he hadn't seen any courts that needed to spend more money to comply.

The agreement does allow courts to arrest someone for failure to pay but only after finding that a defendant could pay it and chose not to do so. The agreement also outlines the rights of individuals under state and federal law who failed to appear in court more than two times in two years.

"Nobody at the MacArthur Justice Center said that poor people don't have to pay a fine or not abide by the law," Johnson said. "Incarcerating (someone) for an offense or incarcerating them because they can't pay the money – it's an entirely different thing."

Concerns about repeat offenders

Jones said the most popular misdemeanor charges he sees in court are driving under the influence, domestic violence and shoplifting, saying he thinks most people would be shocked at the number of "repeat offenders" in the courtroom.

"We frequently have repeat offenders. And my concerns about the cooperation agreement was – (that) it doesn't address that problem," Jones said. "It assumes, for practical purposes, that everyone's a good person, first offender and means well. And, in the real world, that's just not how it is."

Jones said that the first time someone was convicted for shoplifting, for example, they would face 10 days in jail and a $1,149 fine. Wealthier defendants can pay for an education class for the first offense to substitute for jail time.

"(With) repeat offenders, we get away from a social education (and) we got to incarcerate (them) to get their attention because (they're) not catching on," Jones said. "To (SPLC and the MacArthur Center), their mentality is the first-time offender, who's living off disability that wants to do right if just given an opportunity."

First-time offenders weren't the concern of Jones though.

"It's these people that are just in and out of here all the time. By the time they get out of jail, by the next month, they're doing the same thing and I'm dealing with them two months later," Jones said. "(They) want to protect that first-time offender but this doesn't work for, what I call, serial offenders. We have a lot of people who frequently (are) in and out of courtroom all the time. I don't think they deserve these constant reminders."

Jones sees only two options for treating repeat offenders, two he had used in his decade-plus with Meridian's municipal court but said he didn't always know if they worked.

"You can pat them on the back and ask them, 'Please don't do it,' or put them in jail for a while so they realize that there's some serious consequences," Jones said. "With some folks it does (work). Some folks it doesn't. And I got no way of knowing."

Jones said one woman had more than $10,000 in fines for multiple shoplifting convictions but a $25/ month plan wouldn't incentivize her to stop shoplifting.

The agreement allows for a third option, "If approved by the judge, a defendant may also satisfy any community service requirement by completing drug, alcohol, or mental health treatment or GED or other educational classes."

Jones said the court didn't have programs like that.

"If they had the money to pay Weem's (Community Mental Health Center for counseling), that'd be great. But (SPLC and MacArthur) know these people... don't have the money to go to Weems and pay for counseling. So, no. There is no alternative to people of low income who constantly break the law," Jones said.

Addressing cause of repeats

When it comes to repeat offenders, Johnson said that the state needed better ways for courts to address underlying causes. While the state has several drug courts, the implementation of mental health courts hasn't gained the same traction.

"Are we ever going to address the root causes for the behaviors or keep bopping them over the head?" Johnson said. "In every court we watch there are "frequent flyers" but not all of them are doing anything to figure out what's going on."

Pre-trial diversion programs, which seek to address the causes of low-level, nonviolent crime, have had positive outcomes in states such as Illinois and Florida, reducing jail populations and improving public safety by addressing addictions or mental health needs.

"We spend a lot of money incarcerating people. So should we take some of that money and spend more on mental health? Alcohol and drug counseling?" Johnson said. "Those are the decisions (but) people aren't always sympathetic."

Johnson said that the overall culture of courts needed to change in Mississippi, shifting the public's perception that going to court would ultimately end with an arrest.

"The reality of it is that when you start locking people up for unpaid fines and fees, the word on the street is that this judge will lock you up if you show up for court... (and) people don't appear in court because they're very fearful about what will happen when they go there (if) they don't have the money," Johnson said. "What we've found is that if you put someone in a position where they can meet you, they will... We've got to say, 'Hey, don't disappear on us. Come to court and talk to us and we'll work something out.'"

Johnson said that not only would the reputation of the court improve, and court appearances would increase, but that cities were more likely to collect unpaid fines by working with defendants. He'd seen this model already have some success in cities such as Jackson and Corinth.

"I've talked to judges that were skeptical and they've been pleasantly surprised," Johnson said. "What they found in Jackson and in Corinth is that when they gave people a chance, they did it. They have a steady stream of people paying $25 per month."

High hopes for Meridian

SPLC and the MacArthur Center both repeatedly said the agreement didn't add any additional burdens not already part of federal or state law.

"These agreements that we're encouraging cities to voluntarily enter into – it's not anything new or groundbreaking," Short said. "It's simply following federal law and Mississippi criminal procedure."

Johnson agreed.

"All this intended to do was require the city to follow laws that had been established for decades," Johnson said. "This is not unique to Meridian; it's not a question of us 'picking on' Meridian."

But the agencies have great expectations for reformation in Meridian, the first city to voluntarily enter into an agreement.

"Meridian is actually the first time that we've had an agreement like this," Short said. "We work with cities collaboratively to reform practices and ensure that they comply with Mississippi law and federal law."

Other cities in the state fought, and lost, costly court battles before signing an agreement. Because Meridian voluntarily signed the agreement, the amount of supervision time was reduced to two years.

"We're really hoping Meridian will be an example to other cities and counties in Mississippi," Short said. "(But) we don't just make them sign an agreement and run away. We stick around and work with them."

The agreement requires the court to report defendants jailed for nonpayment or nonperformance of community service to monitor the court for compliance with the agreement.

"We're not suggesting that someone who is sentenced to a fine shouldn't have to pay a fine," Short said. "It's just removing the ability of a city to incarcerate a person solely because of their inability to pay a fine."

Jones said he would follow the agreement, despite what he views as shortcomings.

"We're gonna do our very best to comply. That's what the city government wanted and it's my responsibility now (to) make every effort to comply with the terms of that agreement with the resources and manpower that we've got available," Jones said. "I work for the council and the mayor. I will follow their instructions as best I can."

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