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Biloxi settles with ACLU over debtors prison lawsuit

Biloxi settles ACLU lawsuit

City Attorney Gerald Blessey says steps are in place so people will not go to jail for unpaid fines.
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City Attorney Gerald Blessey says steps are in place so people will not go to jail for unpaid fines.

BILOXI -- "Settle it," Biloxi Councilman George Lawrence said Tuesday before the council voted 7-0 to approve the terms of a settlement of a federal lawsuit and pay $75,000 for damages and legal costs.

Although the council approved the settlement Tuesday, the lawsuit had been dismissed March 7 by Magistrate Judge John Gargiulo in U.S. District Court.

In the settlement, the city admits no wrongdoing in the case that alleges Biloxi was jailing people who could not pay fines in traffic and other misdemeanor cases.

The city did agree to make several changes in its court department:

-- The city will immediately stop jailing people for nonpayment of a fine.

-- Biloxi will no longer use probation companies to collect fines as of June 1.

-- A full-time public defender was hired to represent the indigent charged with nonpayment.

-- No additional fees will be charged to people who enter into repayment plans or perform community service.

-- People who are fined or stop paying their fine will be given an "ability to pay hearing" to determine how much they can afford to contribute.

-- Those who can't pay fines, court costs or restitution can have their fines waived by a judge, be given community service or complete a jobs training course, drug treatment, counseling or mental health program.

-- Printed cards detailing the court procedures will be provided to each person.

Biloxi City Attorney Gerald Blessey said it will cost the city $344,000 a year for the additional staff needed to implement these changes. He said the city will get some return on that investment from community service.

He said the agreement will be a model that can be used by other cities in South Mississippi and across the country.

Nusrat Choudhury, attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights, agrees.

"These reforms do so much for the people of Biloxi," she said. The city has taken a strong stand on eliminating for-profit probation companies that impose additional fees when a person can't pay the fine, she said.

"Those companies and those fees have been eliminated," she said.

The city also agreed to suspend on or before June 15 all payment agreements more than two years old that haven't been collected and hold a new compliance hearing for those whose failure-to-pay notices are less than two years old.

What made this suit different than a similar agreement reached with the ACLU in Gulfport about a decade ago was the $75,000 fee Biloxi will pay to settle the suit. Choudhury said three named plaintiffs brought claims against Biloxi. They will receive a total of $50,000 and the additional $25,000 will cover legal fees incurred from the lawsuit.

The ACLU has identified additional Mississippi cities that are jailing people without representation and charging them fees, she said.

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