The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday accusing Biloxi, Mississippi officials of jailing people if they did not pay their court fees and fines - up front and in full. Similar lawsuits filed by the ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center are pending in Louisiana, Alabama and Washington state.
The Supreme Court more than 30 years ago banned the practice of locking people up because they can’t afford to pay court fines or fees, but allegations of modern-day debtor’s prisons have continued to rise across the U.S.
The Biloxi lawsuit, filed on behalf of three people, alleges that the city's municipal court structure is unconstitutional and has "instilled fear and panic amongst the poorest residents of the city and the surrounding region." The ACLU is seeking class-action status for the lawsuit, which names Biloxi Police Chief John Miller, Judge James Steele, the for-profit Judicial Correction Services Inc. and the city as defendants.
The lawsuit charges that the city adopted a policy to aggressively pursue court fines and fees. Indigent people who couldn’t pay were slapped with arrest warrants and subject to serve jail time.
The lawsuit specifically alleges that Biloxi relied on Judicial Correction Services to charge poor people $40 per month to collect their debt. Employees of the company, the lawsuit alleges, "routinely threatened poor probationers with arrest and jail when they reported for probation 'supervision' without money to pay toward their debt or with less than the amount of money required to meet the payment schedule set by the Biloxi Municipal Court."
Vincent Creel, public affairs manager for Biloxi, said city officials had not yet received the lawsuit but that the ACLU is mistaken in regards to the city's collections process.
In a statement, Creel also said the city treats all defendants fairly under the law and, in fact, the court has used "community service in cases where defendants are unable to pay their fines.”
According to the lawsuit, seven months of public records released by the Harrison County (Miss.) Adult Detention Center indicate that at least 415 people were jailed between September 2014 and March 2015 on charges for failing to pay off their debts owed to Biloxi.
The percentage of people living below the federal poverty level in Biloxi "more than doubled" from 13.3% in 2009 to 27.5% in 2013. At the same time, the portion of the city's budget coming from fines and forfeits jumped by 26% from fiscal year 2008-2009 to 2015-2016, according to the lawsuit.