Downtown Meridian, Miss.

The city of Meridian has agreed to stop jailing people too poor to pay their fines and fees.

Meridian has also agreed to stop using money bail in most misdemeanor cases, according to a press release from the MacArthur Justice Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Meridian City Council approved the agreement Tuesday following an investigation that found the city’s court was not complying with federal or state law or court rules the Mississippi Supreme Court established.

The agreement, entered under threat of a lawsuit, will require the city to establish payment plans for people who can’t afford their fines and fees at sentencing time, rescind any existing warrants issued against people who have failed to pay these prior fines and fees or failed to appear in court, and forgive remaining court debt for people previously incarcerated for failure to pay.

As of February 2018, Meridian had over 27,000 outstanding fines totaling $9.2 million dating back to 1985, the Meridian Star reported.

In recent years, advocacy groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, the MacArthur Justice Center and SPLC have settled with Biloxi, Corinth, Jackson and Moss Point over their practices of imposing bail and collecting court fines and fees.

Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center in Mississippi, attributes the ongoing need for such reforms to elected judges who must consider how their actions will affect their re-election chances.

“To be honest, I’m frustrated by the fact that we continue to see judges who know what the law requires, impose money bail, and knowingly subject poor people to incarceration out of fear as to how proper application of the law will be viewed by the local community,” Johnson said in an interview.

“Judges campaign on tough-on-crime platforms and I think they feel tremendous pressure to show just how tough they are after being elected. Poor Mississippians pay the price for this.”

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Michelle Liu was a 2018 corps member for Report for America, a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms. She covered criminal justice issues across the state from June 2018 until May 2020. Prior to joining the Mississippi Today team, her work appeared in the New Haven Independent.