Biloxi Running 'Debtors Prison From the Dark Ages': ACLU

Class-action lawsuit says Miss. city is shaking down poverty-stricken residents
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 22, 2015 10:12 AM CDT
Biloxi Running 'Debtors Prison From the Dark Ages': ACLU
Biloxi has a lot to answer to.   (Shutterstock)

Debtors prisons are supposedly a thing of the distant past—except in Biloxi, Miss. That's according to a class-action lawsuit filed against the city, its police department, the courts, and a private probation company, alleging these agencies have conspired to threaten poor residents into paying up to avoid jail time, the Guardian reports. Despite a 1983 Supreme Court ruling that imprisoning someone because they can't pay fines violates the 14th Amendment, the lawsuit documents 415 such people in Biloxi who were thrown behind bars between September 2014 and March. A lawyer for the ACLU, which filed the suit, says locals were "arrested at traffic stops and in their homes, taken to jail, and subjected to a jailhouse shakedown," calling it "a debtors' prison from the Dark Ages." One notable case: a 51-year-old jailed a month for misdemeanors mainly related to his homelessness.

An NPR probe found all 50 states are engaging in such practices (and more and more lawsuits are being filed), but Biloxi takes issue. "We believe the ACLU is mistaken about the process in Biloxi," the city noted in a statement, though it says it hasn't yet seen the lawsuit. "The court has used community service in cases where defendants are unable to pay their fines." The lead plaintiff, Qumotria Kennedy, is a 36-year-old single mom who makes $9,000 a year as a cleaner. She was a passenger when her friend was pulled over in July for running a stop sign. Police ran Kennedy's name, and she was arrested and jailed due to $1,000 in unpaid court fines and late fees. She spent five days and nights in a holding cell and lost her job; the fees are now $1,251. "The probation person told me if I don't pay it, I will be arrested again sooner or later," she tells the Guardian. "I don't believe this is right. I just hope other people in the world don't get treated like I have." (A New Orleans parish is facing the same scenario.)

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