Civil Rights groups declared a major victory on Wednesday, announcing an end to Mississippi’s unconstitutional practice of jailing poor people indefinitely. District Judge Henry Wingate approved settlement of claims by Octavious Burks and Josh Bassett against Scott County and issued an order covering the four Mississippi counties that are under the jurisdiction of the Eighth Circuit.
The Constitution protects us from being jailed on suspicion alone. If you are accused of committing a crime you have the right to an attorney and a speedy trial. The federal government and most states have laws limiting how long you can be held without being formally charged, but Mississippi does not. Several counties used this as a “loophole” to keep troublemakers off the street without going to all the pesky and expensive business of actually going to trial.
Judges, jailers and police all thought it was perfectly legal to pick someone up on mere suspicion and let them sit in jail until the jailers decided they had enough. They believed not filing charges relieved them of the requirements to provide a defender and hold a speedy trial.
The way Scott County works it, they only issue felony indictments three times a year when they convene a grand jury, which issues the formal charges. The lucky ones get charged in a month or two, others can be put off from session to session for months on end. “Steep and arbitrary bail amounts” are set without considering the defendants financial situation.
Those who ask for public defenders usually get the request approved, but it has been policy for the judge to wait until there are formal charges. According to Judge Gordon, “The reason is, that public defender would go out and spend his time and money and cost the county money in investigating the matter and then sometimes, the defendant is not indicted by the grand jury. So I wait until he’s been indicted.” He also claimed having no authority “to appoint a public defender at all until a defendant was indicted in his courtroom, even if someone were to request a preliminary hearing or a bail hearing.” For cases like that he said, “a defendant can represent himself, or he can employ an attorney.” One of the state’s criminal lawyers was flabbergasted. “A judge has the power to appoint a lawyer anytime,” said Robert B. McDuff.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center sued Scott County in 2014 on behalf of Bassett and Burks who had been jailed without charges for eight to ten months.
According to his Aunt, Octavious Burks has been in jail almost continuously since 2009 in a series of revolving door incarcerations lasting from a year to eighteen months. In 2009, and again in 2012, Burks was arrested for things which would be considered serious felonies but he was never convicted or even charged with a crime, just held prisoner. “He’s always at the jailhouse,” Burks’ Aunt said. “And he don’t ever go to court.” In November 2013, Octavious was picked up again, this time as a suspect in a local robbery. Unable to raise bail which was set at $30,000 or pay for a lawyer, he asked for a public defender. One was approved but never assigned simply because Burks had never been charged.
In a story very similar to Burks, Joshua Bassett is no “stranger to trouble,” according to his mother, Brenda. “He was always going in the door of the jailhouse, but he was coming back out as soon as he went in.” The last time he went in he did not come back out.
Police picked him up on accusations of stealing a trailer and possession of meth. His mom tried to see him but was told over and over that her son was in solitary confinement. When she finally did get to visit, he told her his bail was $100,000. Unable to raise even the 10 percent required for a bail bond, the 64-year-old nursing home janitor had no choice except leave him sit in jail.
Despite the fact he was incarcerated more than once since 2010, Bassett has never been to trial. One of the Defendants in the civil rights suit, District Attorney Mark Duncan, was unable to produce any record of any case involving Mr. Burks. His mom does not remember him ever having formal charges, just that after months in jail he would call her up and ask for a ride. She told him, “You keep your nose clean in there and when you get out this time, you better leave Mississippi.”
I am sure many who were exposed to that kind of treatment simply decided to head elsewhere as soon as they were released, which would be a fairly efficient deterrent to minor crimes, but totally against the Constitution. Scott, Neshoba, Newton and Leake counties are now required to provide inmates with public defenders at the time they are arrested. The counties also have been ordered to create a chief public defender position charged with supervising public defenders to make sure inmates are not at the mercy of a judge’s whim.