Octavius Burks has been locked in jail for three years. He has not been charged. He is still waiting for an attorney. He is still waiting to find out why this is happening to him—for the third time in as many years. Several other people in the same jail, caged indefinitely, are wondering the same thing.
The one shared fact among their cases is that they live in Scott County, Mississippi.
Officials in Scott County have illegally allowed those incarcerated to languish in jail, in some cases for years, without being charged, waiting indefinitely for trial or counsel, in an unconstitutional policy that might be occurring throughout the state, according to a lawsuit (pdf) filed by the ACLU on Tuesday.
“Octavious has spent over three years of his life locked in a cell without ever being formally charged—let alone found guilty—of a crime,” said Brandon Buskey, ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project attorney. “That's how it works in Scott County: No one gets a public defender until they've been indicted… Mississippi doesn't limit how long a prosecutor has to indict someone, even if that someone is wasting away in jail.”
These practices violate the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments, which guarantee rights to counsel, a speedy trial, and fair bail hearings, the ACLU charges.
“This is indefinite detention, pure and simple. Scott County jail routinely holds people without giving them a lawyer and without formally charging them for months, with no end in sight,” Buskey said after filing the lawsuit. “For those waiting for indictment, the county has created its own Constitution-free zone.”
Burks and other plaintiffs, like Joshua Bassett, face additional challenges: they cannot afford to pay their bail.
Judge Bill Freeman, who presided over Burks’ case, set the 37-year-old poultry plant worker’s bail at $30,000 “without any individualized hearings or consideration of bail factors,” the lawsuit states. Although the court approved Burks’ application for a public defender, who might have been able to help lower his bail, no attorney was ever appointed to him in the 10 months that have passed since his arrest.
Burks was arrested for attempted armed robbery, possession of a weapon by a felon, disorderly conduct and possession of paraphernalia. Bassett, who is waiting for help in the same county jail, was arrested for grand larceny and possession of methamphetamine, with his bond set at $100,000.
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Like others who have been caught in the cycle of endless, illegal incarceration, Burks is unable to work or help provide for his family.
“People statewide are losing months and sometimes years of their lives to a glacial justice system,” Buskey said. “Years without knowing when the ordeal will end. All without the state having to prove a thing.”
Mark Duncan, the district attorney and a defendant in the suit, told the New York Times on Wednesday that his office had not yet been able to find any case involving Octavious Burks.
Judge Marcus D. Gordon, the senior judge for the Eight District Court in Mississippi, said that he chooses not to appoint attorneys until a defendant has been indicted to save the county money.
“The reason is, that public defender would go out and spend his time and money and cost the county money in investigating the matter,” Gordon said. “And then sometimes, the defendant is not indicted by the grand jury. So I wait until he’s been indicted.”
The ACLU said Judge Gordon’s “systemic denial of counsel is calamitous for those accused of felony offenses in the Eighth District.”
“The county must set reasonable limits on the amount of time someone can remain in jail without a lawyer and without charges,” Buskey said, before noting that Scott County is not alone in its extreme policies. “In too many places across the United States, poor people languish in jail for weeks and months, crowding the system because they can’t make bail and are waiting for an indictment or a public defender. Reform can’t come soon enough.”
“It's time for Scott County to stop illegally robbing people of their lives,” Buskey said.