A lawsuit concerning how the court system in Biloxi, Miss. treats poor people who can’t pay fine won’t continue after the city, the American Civil Liberties Union and a private probation service agreed Tuesday to settle the case.
The Biloxi City Council voted unanimously to approve the settlement, which a federal magistrate judge approved. The settlement requires the city to spend more to provide lawyers for people who can't afford them, make sure anyone gets a hearing before being jailed over fines and cut ties with private probation companies.
On Monday, the Justice Department sent letters to state and municipal court systems warning against jailing defendants who can't pay fines. The letter clarifies that judges should consider alternatives and that a judge first has established that a defendant who failed to pay did so willfully. Biloxi agreed to cancel warrants for nonpayment and stop trying to collect debts incurred before March 2014 unless a judge decides to reopen collection efforts after examining specific cases. For warrants issued between March 2014 to the present, Biloxi will cancel them and waive any fees and court costs associated with them. New hearings for people who owe money will be scheduled.By April 1, Biloxi will release anyone who’s now jailed for lack of payment, unless a judge determines they're properly detained for other reasons.
The settlement requires judges to provide alternatives for people without money, including delaying or reducing fines, community service that doesn't require payments from defendants or even requirements that defendants complete job training, schooling, drug treatment or counseling.
The settlement states that people can't be jailed for unpaid fines unless they have money and flout the court order, don't try to get money or a judge finds alternatives to jail are inadequate punishment.
The city will pay $75,000 to settle the ACLU suit. The suit alleged that Biloxi jailed 415 people in a nine-month period without offering them a lawyer or determining whether they had money.
ACLU attorney Nusrat Choudhury praised the settlement, calling it a model for other cities. The suit is one of many nationwide alleging authorities are running "debtor's prisons” by ignoring constitutional protections against jailing poor people and employing for-profit probation services that demand additional fees.
Biloxi Mayor Andrew Gilich said the city’s old procedures should have mandated ability-to-pay hearings not just at the first appearance, but at each stage of the process.
"The biggest change that the city court is making is to guarantee indigent defendants will have a public defender and receive follow-up hearings on ability to pay if the defendant fails to comply with the sentence,” he said.
Biloxi spokesman Vincent Creel said the city will spend $344,000 more per year to take over payment programs from a private company and to provide public defenders to protect poor people.