The city of Meridian decided to sign a consent decree with the Southern Poverty Law Center and MacArthur Justice Center rather than risk legal action in a three-to-two decision Tuesday.
The SPLC and MacArthur Justice Center released a statement praising the council's actions "to end the city's practice of incarcerating residents unable to pay fines and fees and to stop using secured money bail in misdemeanor cases."
Meridian Police Chief Benny Dubose said the city had some warning about the agreement and tried to adjust two years ago by preparing their staff to meet the requirements of the agreement.
"We received word about this potential litigation a couple of years ago and we've tried to take steps forward and address it before they came to us. So we have all of the procedures in place to comply with what they want us to do," Dubose said. "As far as agreeing with it, I don't necessarily agree with it but as far as the finances are concerned it's in the best interest of the city."
One major change would require public defenders at misdemeanor offenses, not just felony offenses.
"It's going to require additional personnel. Whereas (only) certain offenses required us to have a public defender now we're pretty much required to have a public defender at whatever," Dubose said. "And that's a good thing because not everyone can afford to have an attorney. That part I don't have a problem with."
Dubose said he had concerns about the consequences for offenders.
"What I have a problem with is when an individual commits a criminal act and gets no punishment," Dubose said.
The centers said they found the city didn't comply with federal law, state law or the Mississippi Rules of Criminal Procedure, according to their release.
"As part of the agreement, the city agreed to rescind any existing warrants issued against people who have failed to pay these prior fines and fees or failed to appear in court," the release said. "The court will forgive any remaining court debt at a rate of $100 per day for anyone who was previously incarcerated for failing to pay a monetary assessment."
“When people are punished for their inability to pay fines and fees, jurisdictions have effectively made it a crime to be poor,” said Caren Short, a staff attorney for the SPLC said in the release. “By proactively and comprehensively reforming their municipal court practices, the city of Meridian has not only safeguarded the constitutional rights of its residents, but also prevented costly litigation, and we commend them for it.”
Dubose saw the agreement differently.
"What they are asking us to do is follow their guidelines versus the guidelines that we were accustomed to following. If an individual was unable to pay a fine then there were alternative measures that the court would take such as incarceration or public service. But the Southern Poverty group is asking, or rather, demanding, that we follow the guidelines that they set," Dubose said. "If an individual commits a criminal act, then we have to go through procedures that they dictate rather than what we have been accustomed to doing."
Dubose said that based on the documentation he had seen from other cities that fought against a similar agreement, he didn't believe the city would win.
"Based on the documents that I've seen from other cities that have faced Southern Poverty, the judges have agreed that you should not incarcerate a person because of their financial status, basically," Dubose said. "But it also goes a little bit further than that as far as I'm concerned. If an individual is unemployed and chooses to be a career criminal, what punishment is there for them? You can't make them work. You can't put them in jail because they can't financially pay their fines.... they didn't give us any alternatives. That's what I have a problem with."
According to the city's legal counsel, the agreement would be the most cost-effective move.
"It's our opinion that this would be the best way forward," Matt Watson, an attorney for the city, told the council on Tuesday. "If we do not enter into this agreement I anticipate we would be sued within a month."
The two organizations previously won in court against the municipalities of Biloxi, Corinth, Jackson, Moss Point and Scott County, according to the Associated Press.
Weston Lindemann, of Ward 5, and Tyrone Johnson, of Ward 2, both voted against the measure.
"It sounds like we're doing things the right way (in municipal court)," Lindemann said. "It feels like the (SPLC) is going around picking fights."
Despite his personal opposition, George Thomas said he would vote for the measure to avoid litigation.
"All we're saying is we'll follow the law," Thomas, of Ward 1, said. "To follow the law for the next two years rather than fight it out in court."
Watson reiterated the cost of fighting the agreement.
"Just in terms of financial costs, it is a lot cheaper than going to court and winning. And it's definitely cheaper than going to court and losing," Watson said.
Watson said the agreement would include quarterly meetings with the groups and reporting reasons for cash bail on misdemeanor charges for two years, rather than the three years the organizations requested.
He clarified that the agreement dealt with how the city handled failure to pay, rather than failure to appear, another issue advocacy groups have mentioned.
"If you can't pay a fine the best thing to do is show up at your court date," Watson said, saying the court had ways to handle indigent defenders, such as addressed in this agreement, through payment plans or community service.