New court rules in Mississippi could help prevent poor people from being stuck in jail without a lawyer or bail.
After six years of work, Mississippi’s first uniform rules of criminal procedure were adopted by the Mississippi Supreme Court in December and took effect Saturday.
They govern a wide range of issues from filing a case to what happens after a trial. But retired state Supreme Court Justice Ann Lamar, who helped lead the work, said one big effect will be to help people with few resources bail out of jail and obtain a lawyer.
“There were some matters like the issue of bail or bond that had been all over the place based on the part of the state you’re in,” Lamar said.
The new rules will allow a judge to issue a summons instead of an arrest warrant to a defendant when someone swears out a complaint. Lamar said that will allow some defendants to avoid arrest and the expense of posting bail. A broad range of bail amounts statewide is suggested for particular offenses — $5,000 to $1 million for drug distribution trafficking, for example. But the rules also say “a defendant should be released pending trial whenever possible” and that judges may release indigent defendants “on non-financial conditions that make it reasonably likely that the defendant will appear.”
Cliff Johnson, a lawyer with the MacArthur Justice Center, said he hopes the rules will help flip the presumption that everyone should have to post money bail to get out of jail in Mississippi.
“The default is that no money bail is to be imposed,” Johnson said. “We’ve had it upside down. The presumption is release. You get to keep your liberty, you don’t have to pay for your liberty.”
Johnson, for example, sued Moss Point, winning a settlement that says the city shouldn’t keep accused criminals locked in jail just because they can’t afford bail.
The rules call for judges to appoint lawyers to indigent defendants “without unnecessary delay” and at the latest — the first time a defendant appears before a judge. That was an issue in a lawsuit that the MacArthur Justice Center and the American Civil Liberties Union settled last month with Scott County, where judges had been withholding lawyers until people were indicted. That meant unindicted defendants who couldn’t afford bail would sit in jail for months.
They reinforce the current practice that all people who arrested before being indicted are supposed to appear before a judge within two business days, saying anyone who doesn’t see a judge during that time must be released on bail. Anyone who is indicted is supposed to be arraigned within 30 days. That rule has been an issue in some counties where courts meet only twice a year. Currently, a case where a woman was held 96 days without seeing a judge in Choctaw County is on appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In addition, at the beginning of every court term, the new rules state that a sheriff must deliver to the top local judge the names of everyone who has been jailed for more than 90 days and a judge must review the detention or bail status for each of all those people.
Lamar said that based on her own experience as a circuit judge in a five-county north Mississippi circuit, it’s hard for judges to track prisoners.
“I don’t know that so-and-so sits in the Water Valley jail until someone brings that to my attention.”
Johnson said he’s hopeful that training will produce changes in court procedures, but said the MacArthur Justice Center has trained people to monitor courts for compliance.
“At my most optimistic, I would say we begin a new era on July 1,” he said.
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