The Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law published a report Wednesday identifying thousands of people being held in Mississippi’s county jails while awaiting trial because they cannot afford bail or public defenders unavailable when required.
According to the report, Mississippi’s county jails have more than 5,800 detainees. Of these detainees, 2,716 have been in jail for over 90 days, 1,000 people have been held for at least nine months, and 731 people have spent more than a year in county jails. While COVID-19 has increased the health risks for the jail staff and inmates, Mississippi’s prison population has increased by hundreds of people since December 2019.
The MacArthur Justice Center stated that the report only reflects a part of the state’s prison population due to inconsistent reporting from counties, meaning that there are more individuals imprisoned in the state and awaiting trial. It also said that the counties in Mississippi spend at least $90 million each year on pretrial incarceration.
Cliff Johnson, director of the McArthur Justice Center, said that thousands are languishing behind bars and awaiting trial because they cannot pay bail. He explained:
The law and our criminal rules say that there is a presumption of release prior to trial and that requiring payment for one’s freedom should be the exception rather than the rule. But Mississippi judges demand that people pay for their liberty in 99% of felony cases, presumption of innocence be damned.
Johnson further said that local governments in Mississippi bear the entire burden of providing public defenders because the state does not have a statewide public defender system. Most of the detainees who cannot afford bail rely on the public defender system. Johnson claims that the system often assigns a lawyer at the start of a detainee’s case, but the attorney often only handles “preliminary matters and then disappears.”
Another lawyer is not appointed until the district attorney obtains an indictment, which can take years in Mississippi since there is no time restriction on how long a person can be imprisoned before a grand jury takes action. Consequently, people remain in jail for years
Since April 2018, the MacArthur Justice Center has released five reports on Mississippi’s local jail population.