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Settlement Ends Mississippi City’s Jailing of Impoverished People Awaiting Court Appearances for Misdemeanor Charges

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Nov. 16, 2015

CONTACT: Alec Karakatsanis, Equal Justice Under Law (202-681-2409)

Cliff Johnson, MacArthur Justice Center (601-949-9470)

Settlement Ends Mississippi City’s Jailing of Impoverished People Awaiting Court Appearances for Misdemeanor Charges

Jurisdictions Using Same Practices Have Opportunity To Change Or Face Similar Legal Challenges

GULPORT,  Miss. -- Moss Point, a small city in Jackson County, Mississippi, has agreed to stop the practice of jailing impoverished people for up to a week while they wait to appear in court on misdemeanor cases.

The agreement is part of a settlement reached in a federal civil rights class action lawsuit filed by Equal Justice Under Law, a non-profit civil rights organization in Washington, D.C., and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law.

The lawsuit challenged Moss Point’s use of money bail without any individualized assessment of a defendant’s ability to pay or the reasons for detaining or releasing the defendant. Under the challenged system, two defendants charged with the same alleged offense were treated differently based only on their wealth: those who could afford to pay a predetermined amount of money were released from jail with the requirement to appear in court at some later date, while those who were too poor to pay remained imprisoned at the City’s expense.

The lawsuit alleged that this practice resulted in the incarceration of hundreds of indigent defendants for up to a week while they waited to see a judge in misdemeanor cases such as disorderly conduct and public intoxication.

Several cities in Mississippi use similar money bail systems, and could face similar class action lawsuits, according to Equal Justice Under Law and the MacArthur Justice Center.

Judge Louis Guirola Jr., Chief Judge of the U.S. District for the Southern District of Mississippi, entered a declaratory judgment finding that the practice in Moss Point “implicates the protections of the Equal Protection Clause when such a schedule is applied to the indigent. No person may, consistent with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, be held in custody after an arrest because the person is too poor to post a monetary bond. If the government generally offers prompt release from custody after arrest upon posting a bond pursuant to a schedule, it cannot deny prompt release from custody to a person because the person is financially incapable of posting such a bond.”

As part of the settlement, the City of Moss Point has agreed to an injunction prohibiting the use of secured money bail and requiring that all defendants in misdemeanor cases prosecuted by the City of Moss Point be released upon their written agreement to appear for court hearings and to abide by specified conditions of pre-trial release.

Alec Karakatsanis, co-founder of Equal Justice Under Law, explained “no human being should be kept in a cage because she cannot make a monetary payment. The Constitution forbids it, and cities across the country are finally beginning to end the scourge of money bail.”

When the lawsuit was filed in June, the City of Moss Point immediately ceased using its fixed bail schedule and began releasing misdemeanor defendants without imposing money bail.

“We commend the leaders of Moss Point for the seriousness with which they approached this problem and their prompt response,” said Cliff Johnson, Director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law. “In addition to ending a policy that mandated the harmful and unnecessary detention of poor people at the City’s expense, they saved Moss Point taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees and allowed the City to avoid class action damages that, we believe, would have amounted to several million dollars.”

Johnson said the money bail system previously in place in Moss Point is not unusual in Mississippi and that similar litigation against other Mississippi cities is likely.

“We recognize that Moss Point was not alone in the use of this unlawful practice,” Johnson said. “We hope that other Mississippi cities and counties will follow the example of Moss Point and immediately cease the incarceration of their poorest citizens simply because they do not have the money to pay bail imposed without any consideration of their financial condition.”

For a copy of the complaint, declaratory judgment and final judgment, go to http://umlaw.macarthurjusticecenter.org/Projects/Money-Bail-System.html

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About Equal Justice Under Law

Equal Justice Under Law is a non-profit civil rights organization, founded in 2014, dedicated to providing pro bono legal services to those most in need. The organization is headquartered in Washington, D.C. and brings cases nationwide to make the legal system more equal. Equal Justice Under Law was chosen by the Harvard Law School Public Service Venture Fund to be its first-ever seed grant recipient. www.equaljusticeunderlaw.org

About the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center

The Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center is a public interest law firm founded by the family of J. Roderick MacArthur to advocate for human rights and social justice through litigation. The MacArthur Justice Center became part of Northwestern University School of Law's Bluhm Legal Clinic in 2006. The MacArthur Justice Center opened an office in New Orleans in 2013 and an office at the University of Mississippi School of Law in 2014. www.umlaw.macarthurjusticecenter.org

Keywords: Cliff Johnson, Equal Justice Under Law, Guirola, Karakatsanis, Money Bail, Moss Point

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