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“Pay or Stay”: Capital City Accused of Running “Debtor’s Prison” to Collect Fines

JACKSON, Miss.–A group intending to sue the City of Jackson says the city is running a “debtor’s prison”, with a policy called “pay or stay”. People who owe back fines are arrested and forced either to work for $58 per day to pay off their fines, or to stay in jail, says the complaint.

The complaint was filed by Equal Justice Under Law, a firm in Washington, D.C., along with the MacArthur Justice Center at Ole Miss.

It’s a class-action, civil rights suit that says Jackson routinely targets some of its poorest people, including disabled citizens who have no way to pay the large debts.

If they cannot work, and choose to sit in jail, the fines are reduced by $25 per day.

The suit says that city prosecutors and public defenders have both been negligent in discussing the defendants’ ability to pay the fines and that their poverty is systematically not considered.

One case in the class-action suit involved a man who was disabled, but had amassed a fine of more than $4,700. When he went before the judge, he was ordered to pay or go to work. Because he is disabled and could not work, he was ordered locked up at the Hinds County Jail.

There he slept on a concrete floor, with no mattress or cushion, due to the jail’s overcrowded conditions.

The man was eventually released and repeatedly ordered to perform community service.

The City of Jackson said in a statement that they have not been served with the lawsuit, but did release a statement:

The City of Jackson does not operate a “debtor’s prison”, and aims to treat all of its citizens fairly under the law.  The City of Jackson does not imprison any citizen without statutory authority and the weighing of all factors, unlike surrounding municipalities who make it a practice to imprison individuals who cannot pay immediately.  The attorneys for the MacArthur Justice Center have been in direct contact with Jackson’s Municipal Court and Office of the City Attorney.  The City of Jackson has acted in good faith to try and work with this entity to resolve any concerns that any citizen would have.  Nevertheless, the MacArthur Justice Center filed suit amidst the ongoing negotiations.  The City of Jackson will vigorously defend against these unfounded claims.  Again, it should be reaffirmed that the City of Jackson is committed to treating all of its citizens fairly and within the protection offered under the law.

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