- Associated Press - Monday, June 20, 2016

A federal class-action lawsuit against Mississippi’s capital city was settled Monday, bringing to an end a system of Jackson illegally jailing people because they couldn’t pay court fines.

The lawsuit was filed by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit civil rights group Equal Justice Under Law and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law. Jackson municipal judges ordered each of the seven plaintiffs jailed because they were unable to pay fines and fees imposed in misdemeanor cases. All owed at least $1,200.

People sent to jail under the previous system received credit toward their unpaid debts at a rate of $25 per day of incarceration at the Hinds County Jail or $58 per day if they participated in a work program at the Hinds County Penal Farm. As a result, some people spent several months in jail while working off their debts.

Under Monday’s settlement , the city agreed to give indigent defenders the choice of paying their fines at the rate of $25 per month or performing community service and getting a credit toward their debt at the rate of $9 per hour.

In addition, the city has agreed to prohibit the use of secured money bail and requiring that all misdemeanor defendants be released upon their written agreement to appear for court hearings and to abide by specified conditions of pre-trial release. As an alternative to money bond, the city’s judges will have the option to place nonmonetary pre-trial conditions on people arrested for misdemeanor offenses. For example, a judge might order someone accused of shoplifting to stay away from the affected location until the case is resolved.

The plaintiffs also will have their debts to the city forgiven and will get settlement payments totaling $128,400.

“No human being should be kept in a cage because she cannot make a monetary payment,” said Alec Karakatsanis, co-founder of Equal Justice Under Law. “The Constitution forbids it, and communities across the country are finally beginning to end the scourge of debtors’ prisons and money bail.”

Jackson Mayor Tony Yarber, in a statement late Monday, said the city “is committed to fair treatment of all its citizens.”

“Please know that no crime will go unpunished. All misdemeanors will be strictly enforced, and fines indeed will be paid. … This settlement protects the indigent with an inability to pay their fines, which will be determined during court proceedings. The settlement also is reflective of changing policies across the nation. The City of Jackson remains committed to prosecuting all crime within its boundaries to the highest degree. It’s a new day in the City of Jackson,” the statement said.

“The processes and procedures adopted by the Capital City pursuant to our agreement are a model for the rest of the state,” said Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center. “It is our hope that cities and counties throughout Mississippi will adopt these same practices rather than continuing to jail poor folks unjustly and forcing us to file lawsuits seeking millions of dollars in damages.”

Similar suits have been filed in Alabama, Louisiana and Missouri. All accuse court systems of ignoring U.S. Supreme Court decisions that say courts must determine whether people have the ability to pay fines before jailing them for nonpayment.

Last year, Equal Justice Under Law and the MacArthur Justice Center negotiated a settlement of a federal class-action lawsuit against Moss Point, Mississippi, that brought an end to the use of money bail in misdemeanor cases prosecuted there.

A pending federal lawsuit in New Orleans accused the city’s criminal court judges of running what amounts to a debtors’ prison by jailing poor people who can’t afford to pay court fees.

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