Waiting on Justice: Pretrial detention in Mississippi

Mississippi is one of the last states not to have a public defender system. (Photo source: WDAM)
Mississippi is one of the last states not to have a public defender system. (Photo source: WDAM)

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Innocent until proven guilty, but for thousands of pretrial detainees currently in county jails across Mississippi, it can seem the other way around.

"Pretrial detention is a problem set across the state of Mississippi," said Jennifer Collins, executive director of the Mississippi ACLU.

It's not a new problem, defendants sitting in jails waiting for their cases to make it through the court system. A list of Pine Belt inmates and their arrest dates, gathered over a period of months, shows just how much of a problem it is. While many are convicted criminals, many others are simply waiting on a slow-moving justice system.

"You can sit in jail a long time," said Collins.

Collins said there's no one reason for the problem. Take Roddrick Green, for example. He's in the Forrest County Jail on aggravated assault, weapons and drug charges after being arrested in October 2014. He's been in jail for more than 3 ½ years, waiting on a court ordered mental health evaluation.

James Steelman is in the Lamar County Jail on murder and aggravated domestic violence charges after being arrested in October 2012.  He's been in jail for more than 5 ½ years, and his trail is set to begin in September.

Then there are others, some not even indicted, who've been waiting for months, and in some cases years. Many stay there because they can't afford bail, they're waiting on a grand jury or because investigations aren't complete.

"It has been a big problem," said Judge Prentiss Harrell, of the 15th Circuit Court of Mississippi.

"In our constitution, we're not guilty until proven guilty or they plead guilty," Harrell said.

The problem has created a backlog on the county level.

"I hesitate to say their rights are being violated, because they do have the right to make bail. However, bail can be expensive for an indigent person or they simply just cannot make it," Harrell said regarding the detainees' rights.

Several other reasons contribute to the problem as well, according to Harrell.

"Lack of resources is the primary purpose. Like of simple resources," he said. "We leave them in jail because we can't get to them."

Harrell sees firsthand the need for reform.

"Staying in jail is not the answer. It simply does nothing. It does not rehabilitate them," Harrell said.

With counties footing the bill to house pretrial detainees, it can be a struggle. Counties must balance that with paying for juries and grand juries, all while trying to make sure the wheels of justice turn.

Harrell said Pearl River County pays anywhere between $30 to $35 a day to house an inmate. The state doesn't pick up the tab until there's a conviction. When you do the math, it adds up to a bigger issue. Mississippi has no public defender system in place, leaving counties to figure it out on their own.

"The fact that detention as a system is based and borne on the back of the counties says that Mississippi has not done its due diligence to ensure that everyone is treated fairly and equitably by putting in place a statewide system," Collins said.

A March report commissioned by the Mississippi Public Defender Task Force found the state has no method of even making sure counties are fulfilling the state's constitutional obligation in providing effective assistance to indigent detainees. That same report revealed there are no standards or oversight to ensure appointed defense attorneys have the qualifications, skill, experience and training to match the cases they're assigned.

That's coupled with a finding that those same attorneys aren't given sufficient time or resources and carry excessive caseloads. Collins said that could all lead to a perfect storm of keeping innocent people behind bars.

"Public defenders are swamped. I'm not saying that they're inadequate, they're inadequately resourced," said Collins.

Several years ago, the state of Mississippi funneled money into creating training opportunities for public defenders, but Collins said that doesn't address the lack of a public defense system.

Last summer the Mississippi rules of criminal procedure went into effect, which allows judges to review bonds of every inmate held for at least 90 days. Seeing the problem, Judge Harrell recently implemented a county level public defender system in two of the five counties he represents.

"They have full time public defenders that see these people within three days. We try to do 48 hours. A couple of weeks ago I took nine pleas on information," said Harrell.

That means a tax payer funded grand jury process and trial were avoided. While not mandated by the state, Harrell said it needed to be done.

Mississippi is one of the last states not to have a public defender system. Other states have pretrial risk assessments in place, and some give citations instead of arrests for some crimes, which mandate those accused show up to court.

Both Harrell and the Mississippi ACLU believe state lawmakers need to make this a priority at the state capitol, but acknowledge it's tough when you don't have many lobbyists advocating for people sitting in jail. A statewide public defender system would also be expensive.