By Renji Shino (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
November 21, 2015; Sun Herald (Biloxi, MS)

When the Department of Justice investigated the criminal justice system in Ferguson, Missouri, it found many practices that created antagonism and distrust between residents and the police and courts. Under these “debtor prison” practices, the poorer you are, the more likely you are to be imprisoned.

As NPQ reported last week, class-action lawsuits are being filed across Mississippi regarding criminal justice practices that violate the right of poor people to obtain equal protection under the 14th Amendment.

One suit, discussed here, charges the city of Biloxi with running a modern-day debtor’s prison, also alleging that the city’s means of generating revenue has preyed upon the impoverished, disabled and homeless. Similarly, fixed-sum bail systems without hearings on indigence, like the ones in Moss Point, MS, and Clanton, AL, have been deemed to also violate the equal protection clause and have led to settlements.

Biloxi’s court generated $1.27 million in revenue in 2013 according to the ACLU, and the portion of general-fund derived from fines and forfeitures has increased 26 percent since 2008 even as the number of people living below the poverty line grew by more than 50 percent from 2009 to 2013.

Biloxi spokesman Vincent Creel said, “We believe the lawsuit is a good thing and good will come from it,” he said.

The U.S. Justice Department documented similar practices in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting of Michael Brown and credited them with breeding antagonism and distrust between residents and police. “The lawsuits are part of a nationwide movement questioning how poor citizens are treated in our criminal justice system,” said Cliff Johnson, an assistant professor of law and director of the MacArthur Justice Center, which is involved in the Moss Point lawsuit and others concerning the City of Jackson and Scott County.

“Our hope is that judges, prosecutors, and politicians will take note of this movement and implement changes before such suits are filed,” Johnson said. “My expectation, however, is that additional litigation will be necessary in order to bring about the changes we seek—changes the Constitution demands.”—Ruth McCambridge