Bright and early on a Tuesday morning, the third floor of the Hinds County courthouse is packed. Standing room only has latecomers squeezing in, holding their folders tightly protecting stacks of paperwork and forms.

Overlooking downtown Jackson, the courthouse offers a glimpse into a process that repeats itself all too often for many renters – defendants and plaintiffs take their seats and wait for eviction cases to start.

Justice courts serve as Mississippi’s first step of the judicial system, and hear small-claims civil cases, such as misdemeanor criminal cases and some traffic offenses. These are not courts of record, most defendants are not represented by counsel and the judges are elected locally. But, they are efficient. And it’s here where most evictions in Jackson land.

Mississippi ranks eighth in the nation for evictions, according to the Eviction Lab, a Princeton-based research team that compiled every eviction record in the country from 2000 to 2016. And Jackson ranks fifth highest for cities with 100,000 people or more.

Lavar Edmonds, researcher with Eviction Lab, says evictions are a costly process for landlords, tenants and the court system — and the underlying issue is lack of stable, affordable housing.

“So you’ve got that composite with an overburdened court system,” he says. “It’s not black and white, it’s not a bunch of predatory landlords either … this system doesn’t work for anybody. [Landlords] are not getting rent, the people who are trying to live in the residents don’t have the money to pay and they’re not having a decent standard of living, so why are we OK with how these things are?”

The Mississippi Landlord-Tenant Act allows an eviction to be filed three days after rent is late.

But, in justice court, an eviction judgment effectively gives a landlord leverage to collect unpaid rent, and holds the threat to elongate the process if they seek a removal warrant. Many landlords lean on the court system as a collection agency to recoup unpaid rent and in doing so, create a paper trail of unpaid rent, late fees, court fees and attorney fees — leaving tenants in the wake. Evictions judgments — even if not removals — follow tenants, staining their rental and credit record.

“Court fee, late fee, attorney fee … it’s a spiraling thing and that’s why we are so big on making clear that poverty influences eviction, but eviction influences poverty,” Edmonds says, of the eviction court process. “These tiny little pricks that snowball into becoming insurmountable and it’s unclear how you would expect these already low-income rent-burdened tenants to overcome eviction without a more sensible, robust policy initiative to change it. It’s not clear that any level of government is investing in it in that way and the way they should be.”

Even if tenants are not formally evicted from the unit, the repeat judgments start a cyclical process that makes it more and more expensive to just stay in their home, he says.

And there is confusion around the difference between an eviction judgment and a removal. In mid-July in DeSoto County — which averages the third highest eviction rate among Mississippi counties, behind Hinds and Tunica — a landlord asks Judge Larry Vaughn how long he has to wait after the eviction judgment to remove the tenant.

I try to tell the landlords to let the ink dry on this order … but I have on occasion done warrant of removals on the same day,” Vaughn said. In this case, he issued the eviction judgment for four days later on Sunday, telling the landlord he could seek a removal warrant the following Monday morning if the tenant had not left willingly. If that tenant paid up and the landlord was appeased, the eviction judgment stands, but the removal never went through. If the tenant falls behind again, they’ll likely end up in court again.

In a Mississippi Today analysis of evictions, we found repeat eviction judgments to be commonplace across the state, partly because justice court is not set up in a way to arbitrate all claims equally — especially housing, according to Mississippi Center for Justice attorney John Jopling who has represented tenants in justice court for over 30 years. And though the affordable housing landscape has changed a lot in that time, the eviction process has not.

The most repeat evictions for a single tenant — an eviction judgment on paper, but not an actual removal — was 27 times over 5 years in DeSoto County.

Jopling says tenants he represents are the lucky few because most tenants show up to court without representation — and the process can be a confusing one.

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A lot of these decisions end up being settled in the hallway, just outside of the courtroom. But, even if both the tenant and landlord agree on a payment schedule and work out a plan, an eviction judgment is still usually issued — as a stamp affirming that the plaintiff was awarded a monetary judgment, and a paper trail for the landlord in case the tenant doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain.

Some settlements are better than a good judgment. Some poor settlements are better than a good judgment, depending on what shoes you’re wearing, or what side you’re on,” according to Vaughn. “I do promote settlement — I cannot be a part of it, I cannot play a role in it, but I do encourage it — it brings goodwill into the community.”

Experts say the Mississippi eviction process tends to favor the landlords over the tenants, though it’s time-consuming for both parties. The eviction process can start quickly, and it’s relatively cheap to file in Mississippi, compared to other states. A combination of late fees adding up, the lack of uniformity, affidavit forms provided for the landlords, and virtually no legal representation for tenants tilt the scales in favor of the landlord, Jopling says.

Most justice courts provide forms to aid landlords in tenant removal, but no counterpart is provided for tenants. “The question is: if there are self-help forms available for landlords who are appearing without lawyers, why shouldn’t there be self-help forms available for tenants who are appearing to defend themselves?” Jopling says.

Hearings are generally short, and while the judge allows a trial if there are disagreements, most tenants know they are late on rent, and are just asking for a little more time to get the full balance with rent and fees. If repairs are needed, or the tenant has been injured or lost income, some judges will ask for more information and see if the landlord will agree to a payment plan. But ultimately, if rent is late, the law calls for an eviction.

To a tenant who says his paychecks were interrupted when he switched from temporary service work to full-time employment, “You’re welcome to a trial on any issue that you have before this court — plaintiff will have to prove their case — but if there is rent unpaid, that trial would not take very long,” Vaughn said, alluding to the nature of the eviction statute.

Work injuries and not having savings accounts are “personal issues” not relevant to the case under the law, according to Vaughn, and most justice courts operate similarly.

“What usually happens when people go into court by themselves is they lose and they have a judgment against them that follows them the rest of their life, and you have a harder time finding a place to live than other people,” Jopling says. “A lot of [landlords] just flat out won’t rent to you if you have a prior eviction, or an eviction within the last three years.” Even though all of these eviction judgments are not actual removals, they still can look as such on a record, he says.

Mississippi recently updated its laws on evictions, requiring a landlord to wait ten days after the eviction judgment before filing for the tenant to be removed. Before July 2018, a justice court judge could set the removal date indiscriminately. But according to Mississippi Center for Justice, the new rule is interpreted and applied differently across the state, so a tenant’s eviction outcome can largely depend on which county they live and which judge they see.

“It’s important for Mississippi to think about it — what is it about the justice court system that permits such varying outcomes upon similar sets of facts? People get lost because they think it’s just an argument between haves and have-nots and it often falls into these stereotypes without much data,” he said. “The data that’s needed is lack of uniformity from county to county in justice court outcomes.”

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Erica Hensley, a native of Atlanta, has been working as an investigative reporter focusing on public health for Mississippi Today since May 2018. She is a Knight Foundation fellow for our newsroom’s collaboration with local TV station WLBT and curates The Inform[H]er, our monthly women and girls’ newsletter. She is the 2019 recipient of the Doris O'Donnell Innovations in Investigative Journalism Fellowship. Erica received a bachelor’s in print journalism and political science from the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a master’s in health and medical journalism from the University of Georgia Grady College for Journalism and Mass Communication.