Class-action lawsuit accuses judge, Corinth of running ‘debtor’s prison’

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The Southern Poverty Law Center and the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law filed a federal class-action lawsuit Tuesday against the City of Corinth and a municipal court judge for operating what they call a “modern-day debtor’s prison”.

The lawsuit alleges that Judge John C. Ross violated the constitutional rights of defendants facing misdemeanor or municipal charges by holding them in jail until they pay bail money or their fine, without taking into account their ability to pay.

“Even though debtors’ prisons have been outlawed in this country for more than 200 years, Corinth is running a jail from the Dark Ages in one of the nation’s poorest regions – it’s shameful,” said Sam Brooke, deputy legal director for the SPLC.

The Corinth Municipal Court did not respond to a request for comment.

Plaintiff Brian Keith Howell, a 28-year-old man whose leg was amputated following a car accident, was arrested on Nov. 27 for three minor traffic violations. On Dec. 4, Judge Ross assessed a $1,000 fine after Howell pleaded guilty to the traffic tickets and told Howell that he had to pay the amount in full or sit out the equivalent amount of the fine in jail – 50 days.

“Mr. Howell tried to tell the judge that he was working on getting disability and could not pay the fine right away, but Judge Ross wouldn’t listen,” Brooke said.  “Judge Ross just told Mr. Howell his fine amount and sent him back to jail.”

Judge Ross makes no inquiry into the defendant’s ability to pay, and does not inform them of their right to counsel prior to jailing them for non-payment, SPLC said in a news release.

The SPLC and MacArthur Justice Center say they have been investigating the court’s practices over the last year. Over the course of the investigation, the groups encountered many indigent defendants who were either threatened with jail time or spent a considerable amount of time in jail for their inability to pay court-imposed fines and costs, according to the release.

Another plaintiff, Latonya James, an unemployed mother, appeared before Judge Ross on Aug. 14 for a school attendance violation charge involving her daughter who is struggling with bipolar disorder. In July, Judge Ross ordered James to pay $100 toward her fine, but when she informed Judge Ross that she could not make the payment, he gave her a notice to hand to the clerk’s office that read, “$100 today or jail.” She was not allowed to leave the clerk’s office, where she was threatened with jail, until her brother drove two hours to pay the $100.

“Despite being told repeatedly by the Mississippi Supreme Court and the Mississippi Judicial College to stop locking up Mississippians who are too poor to pay their fines in large lump sums and are not able to buy their way out of jail by paying a pre-determined amount of money bail, a disturbing number of judges in Mississippi defiantly refuse to comply with the law,” said Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law.

“The MacArthur Justice Center and other civil rights organizations like the SPLC will keep filing lawsuits and judicial performance complaints until these judges, and the cities and counties that ratify and facilitate their practices, decide to abide by the law and the express instructions of Mississippi’s highest court,” he added.