The American Civil Liberties Union has accused Biloxi, Miss. of operating "a modern day debtors' prison," filing a lawsuit on Wednesday charging that the city, in violation of the U.S. Constitution, jails impoverished people for unpaid fines and fees they are unable to pay.
"It's essentially a jailhouse shakedown," stated Nusrat Choudhury, an attorney with the ACLU's Racial Justice Program.
The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi in Gulfport, names as defendants the city of Biloxi, Biloxi Police Chief John Miller, Judge James Steele, and for-profit Judicial Correction Services, Inc. It states:
The City routinely arrests and jails impoverished people in a scheme to generate municipal revenue through the collection of unpaid fines, fees, and court costs imposed in traffic and other misdemeanor cases. As a result, each year hundreds of poor residents of the City and surrounding areas, including individuals with disabilities and homeless people, are deprived of their liberty in the Harrison County Adult Detention Center for days to weeks at a time for no reason other than their poverty and in violation of their most basic constitutional rights.
The organization further explains that "the city, through the Biloxi Municipal Court, has aggressively pursued court fines and fee payments from indigent people by issuing warrants when payments are missed. The warrants charge debtors with failure to pay, order their arrest and jailing in the Harrison County Adult Detention Center, and explicitly state that debtors can avoid jail only if they pay the full amount of fines and fees in cash."
Among the plaintiffs is single mother Qumotria Kennedy, who writes, "Biloxi locked me up for being poor."
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Kennedy was arrested on a warrant for owing $1,001 in traffic fines and fees and jailed for five days. She writes that at the police station, "They didn’t bring me to court, give me a lawyer or even tell me that I had a right to one."
"My daughter didn’t even know where I was or what happened for an entire night. No one told me how long I’d be in jail. Each day, I was wondering when I would see my daughter or be brought to court," Kennedy writes.
The legal action against Biloxi follows a suit by the ACLU of Washington earlier this month that says the state's Benton County "operates a modern-day debtors' prison," and the press statement from the ACLU on the Biloxi action calls the suit "the latest pushback against the national scourge of debtors' prisons."
"Cities across the country, like Biloxi, are scrambling to generate revenue, and they're doing it off the backs of poor people," Choudhury's statement continues. "Being poor is not a crime. Yet across America, people are being locked up because they can't afford to pay traffic fines and fees."
"This lawsuit seeks to dismantle a two-tiered system of justice that punishes the poorest, particularly people of color, more harshly than those with means in flagrant violation of the Constitution," she added.