“They’ve been convicted of nothing.”
A recent survey of Mississippi jails conducted by the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law — released exclusively to The Associated Press — shows that 2,500 defendants — more than one-third of all of those jailed before trial — have been in jail 90 or more consecutive days. More than 600 have been in jail longer than a year.
The most recent census conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2013, showed an average pretrial jail stay in Mississippi of 40 days, the sixth-longest in the country. The census also revealed that Mississippi had the second-highest number of local jail inmates per capita, behind Louisiana.
Cliff Johnson, who directs the Ole Miss branch of Chicago-based MacArthur, said he hopes the information will show the true extent of long pretrial jail stays in Mississippi and bolster efforts to lessen them. MacArthur has repeatedly sued cities and counties in Mississippi for jailing poor people who can’t afford to pay bail or fines.
Data was nearly impossible to compile until last July, when the state Supreme Court, lobbied by the MacArthur center, ordered sheriff’s offices to provide it.
The numbers reinforce what Johnson says he already knew: “Mississippi’s criminal justice system, for a variety of reasons, is set up so that lengthy pretrial incarceration is not only possible, it’s common.”
Among those reasons:
— Most defendants in Mississippi can’t afford their own lawyers or the high bails judges continue to slap on them, despite decades-old federal court rulings that they consider what a defendant can pay.
“They’ve been convicted of nothing,” Johnson said. “They’re presumed innocent, and I think we lose sight of that fact.”
— Public defenders in Mississippi are overworked and underpaid. Attorneys may spend five minutes with a defendant while a judge sets bail, but defendants may not see lawyers again until after they’ve been indicted. A recent report slamming indigent defense called this period the “black hole” of representation. Judicial leaders plan to ask lawmakers for more funding to increase the amount of help available to poor defendants.
—In many rural Mississippi counties, grand juries and courts meet only twice a year. In 2012, a woman in Choctaw County was jailed for more than three months without a preliminary hearing because the court was out of session.