JACKSON – A federal judge Monday declared unconstitutional the City of Jackson’s policy of holding people in jail who cannot pay fines because they are poor.
“It violates the Constitution to incarcerate an individual, either before or after trial, solely because an individual does not have the ability to make a monetary payment,” stated U.S. District Judge Tom S. Lee.
City officials agreed to a settlement with the seven plaintiffs, forgiving their indebtedness to the city and paying them a total of $128,400.
Attorneys for the seven people, who filed the lawsuit aimed at the fees, termed their settlement with the City of Jackson a “landmark” event.
“The city has agreed to give indigent defendants the choice of paying off their fines at the rate of $25 per month or performing community service and receiving credit toward their unpaid fines at the rate of $9 per hour,” stated a news release issued by attorneys for the seven shortly after Lee’s decision.
“These practices – and the modern day debtors’ prison they have created – have no place in our society,” the class-action complaint stated.
The lawsuit was filed by lawyers for Equal Justice Under Law of Washington, D.C., and the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi.
Their news release noted that Jackson will no longer require people arrested for misdemeanors to post a money bond to avoid pre-trial detention.
The class-action complaint claimed that once a poor person was jailed by the City of Jackson, that person was told he or she could “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.
Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Center at Ole Miss, thanked city officials for taking seriously the legal complaints.
He said their decision avoided paying “hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys fees” and saved the city from “huge” class action damages.
“I’m encouraged by what I see happening in Jackson,” Johnson said after the settlement was announced. “The city’s leaders are showing a willingness to be creative and thoughtful and set an example for the rest of the state.”
A city spokesperson said a statement would be forthcoming.