Jackson may settle ‘debtors’ prison’ suit

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JACKSON – Attorneys are mum on a potential settlement to a class-action lawsuit accusing the City of Jackson of illegally holding poor people who cannot immediately pay off fines for traffic violations and other misdemeanors.

The Jackson City Council is expected to consider “terms” for a settlement at its May 3 meeting, the U.S. District Court docket shows.

The federal lawsuit, Jerome Bell et al v. City of Jackson, asks the federal court to stop and remedy the city’s so-called “pay or stay” practice, which it claims violates U.S. and state law. It also seeks monetary damages to compensate the plaintiffs and others “for the time they spent unlawfully incarcerated” in Hinds County’s two jail facilities and penal farm.

“These practices – and the modern day debtors’ prison they have created – have no place in our society,” the 33-page complaint states.

While lead attorneys LaShundra B. Jackson-Winters for the city and Clifton Johnson for the plaintiffs declined to comment to Mississippi Today’s request for reaction, the U.S. District Court docket shows “a potential settlement” in the works after a telephone conference with Magistrate Judge Robert H. Walker. No details were offered.

The issue against the city comes from an October 2015 lawsuit filed on behalf of seven people, and others similarly affected, by lawyers for Equal Justice Under Law of Washington, D.C., and MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi.

The class-action complaint claims that once a poor person is jailed by the city, that person is told he or she can “work off” their fines at the rate of $58 per day, while those unable to work must “sit out” their fines at $25 per day.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Rickey Lambert, 41, of Flowood, and Jackson residents Jerome Bell, 58, James Sheppard, 61, Marteze Harris, 25, Domonic Butler, 27, Michael Davis, 34, and Jarmale Walker, 26.

They represent themselves and a “class of similarly situated people all subject to the city’s illegal debt-collection scheme,” the claim states.