Jail numbers aren't full picture, justice officials say

A tier of cells at Mississippi State Penitentiary (Photo courtesy of MDOC)
Staff Writer

Clay County is at the top of a list in the state. But many involved in the justice system in Clay County say the numbers are not a fair representation of the real picture.

This week, the MacArthur Justice Clinic at the University of Mississippi and the American Civil Liberties Union are releasing statistics for county jails in the state and the number of pre-trial detainees they have behind bars for more than 90 days.

As of April 17, Clay County had 40 of its 90 inmates who fell under that broad category. That ranks second in the state behind Grenada County.

The list is part of regular reports jails are now required to file as a result of a series of lawsuits and state Supreme Court rules changes in the last three years. Cases in Scott and Choctaw counties involving people housed in jails for months without court hearings and reasonable bonds heightened debate on what has been a growing issue nationwide for years.

The goal is to insure justice, protect communities and avoid "a dual system of justice wherein only arrestees who can afford counsel have meaningful access to the pretrial process, including preliminary and bail hearings, case investigation and plea negotiation," a judge wrote in an order settling a lawsuit in Scott County.

Others note the statistics suggest "huge disparities of who's in jail based on being poor" and say the state Supreme Court's rules are part of an effort to recognize that a "wealth-based pre-trial detention system is not permissible."

"I can assure you no one is putting people in jail and throwing away the key," said Scott, who is out of town this week at a training conference. "Misdemeanors, felonies, we watch them all very closely. We get them in front of a judge within hours and we work with the judges on misdemeanors to try to set up ways for people to work off fines.

"We've always understood that people have rights and we respect those rights. The new rules and the court rulings have tightened everyone up even more than we were before," the sheriff added.

West Point attorney Michelle Easterling, who is the city and county prosecutor in Municipal and Justice courts, says she, judges and Scott have been looking at ways to use technology to expedite initial appearance, arraignments and even bond hearings using technology.

"Places across the country are using Facetime and other software like that to do hearings. We want to look at doing the same thing. A judge can do it face-to-face wherever they are," Easterling explained.
"We know we can't lose people like what happened in Choctaw County. That's a lesson for us all to pay attention," Easterling added.

The nine-month-old Mississippi Supreme Court Rules of Criminal Procedure say if an accused person does not appear before a judge within 48 hours, he or she is entitled to a minimum bail bond. The rules also set broad bond ranges for felonies and misdemeanors, based on the potential severity of punishment state law requires.

Cliff Johnson, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center, previously has said those bond guidelines shouldn't be needed. Instead, they say bonds should be the last alternative, but studies by the Center show the system operates just the opposite. Instead, bonds are set almost universally, resulting in what the center calls "over-jailing" or jailing people who have not faced trial just because they cannot afford their bond amount.

"There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people incarcerated in Mississippi simply because they don't have enough money to make bail, and they haven't been convicted of a crime," Johnson told the Jackson Free Press.

Some of those cases do happen. For instance, a woman was jailed Monday in Clay County for driving on a suspended license and a seat belt violation. Her bond was $594.50.

"Those are the kinds of cases the courts are looking at. I don't know all the circumstances of her case but on the surface, it would seem that she didn't have to be locked up, photographed in a jail jump suit. Would a ticket not have sufficed," said a lawyer who asked not to be named because they have cases pending in Clay County.

Scott, Easterling and others say the statistics can be deceiving.

For instance, some people in jail on what appear to be minor charges have underlying histories of repeatedly failing to show up for court. Others are significant threats to themselves or others. The county also holds suspects for other counties and has several from Noxubee, Lowndes and Oktibbeha behind bars now.

"We try to get with prosecutors and get these cases moving along. Some of these people have been waiting two years or more on serious charges like murder," Scott explained.

Many legal observers say as the system develops, jails may need more flexibility or better definitions on how they report their numbers. A look at Clay County's jail roster raises questions about some inmates who are in jail on what sound like relatively minor charges, but they have no bonds or high bonds. Others have been in for weeks or longer with low bonds.

"Our judges use a lot of discretion depending on the person, the crime, their history, lots of factors. In some cases, investigators suggest keeping people in jail for their own protection. Sometimes it's to protect others, lots of issues are involved," said Easterling. "I know we don't want jail based on how much money you have and I am sure it seems like that sometimes but on the other hand, it's not cookie cutter, not one size fits all."

"And that's just city and justice courts. That doesn't even take into account circuit court felonies. We just finished a term in early April. We don't have another one until July. Meanwhile, the judges and prosecutors are working in other counties, too. It takes time," Scott added.

Clay County has several people in jail awaiting circuit court cases. Most are serious felonies ranging from armed robbery and drug trafficking to murder.

About two dozen are in jail on circuit court warrants for either violating probation or parole or not showing up for court dates. They likely will be there until July unless a judge can work out a day or two to take their cases and prosecutors and defense attorneys have time to review their facts.

Some of the cases are more significant than others, but rules are rules.

"The public wants people punished, they want victims to get restitution, everyone wants something different. If we start just letting everyone out, them justice isn't served. It's a balance. It's not as easy as a number," Scott stated.

The sheriff and his staff work with judges regularly to try to get misdemeanor cases into the county's work program to work off fines when it's evident people may not be able to afford even the smallest bond or fine.

"It's a hard job keeping up with it all, with who is in for what. One of the biggest things we are trying to improve is communication, communication across all the courts, all law enforcement, everything. The more eyes we have, the better we'll be," Easterling noted. "But even with everything we do and everyone paying attention, I'm not going to say something will never happen. But I can assure you it won't be on purpose."

Another issue the ACLU, MacArthur Center and others have cited is having enough public defenders to handle the workload.

Clay County has two part-time defenders handling cases across all courts. They and prosecutors alike acknowledge they can't be everywhere at once, especially when they must keep active law practices going to pay the bills.

Their schedules don't always mean being able to be in lower courts regularly. And if suspects decide they want preliminary hearings, which an increasing number are demanding, it pushes actual court dates back even further, regardless of whether the person is in jail or out on bond.

"Right now we already are into June with preliminary hearing dates," Easterling noted of the schedules in city and justice courts. "Remember, these aren't full-time courts meeting everyday, all day. That's not the way it works here or just about anywhere else in the state. It's a challenge sometime, but we aren't going to have a person's preliminary hearing without their attorney present.

"I don't know the answers. I think everyone will agree it is a challenge sometime."