Lawsuit Alleges Creation of Debtors' Prison - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

07/27/05

Lawsuit Alleges Creation of Debtors' Prison

On this day, 140 inmates in the Harrison County jail are charged with misdemeanors. They didn't pay their fines. Corrections officers say most of the prisoners are from Gulfport, sent to jail by the city judges. The crimes range from shoplifting to public drunk to trespassing.

NAACP Gulfport Chapter President Felicia Dunn Burke says, "There's something wrong with the policies and procedures being implemented by the Gulfport Municipal Court and the City of Gulfport."

A federal lawsuit wants those policies changed so that poor defendants aren't put behind bars with no means of paying their debts.

"By putting them in jail, the City of Gulfport is not getting anything. That's the tragedy of it. The City of Gulfport gives the individual who's incarcerated $15.00 a day credit on their fines," Burke says.

The people in jail sit out their time. Depending on how much they owe, that can sometimes add up to months.

Mayor Brent Warr says he's trying to find out everything he can about how the system works in city court, so he can meet the attorneys face to face.

"I have had a chance to speak to the city attorney about it. He and I understand, kind of, the position that we are, but we don't necessarily understand the position of the people who have filed the complaint in any detail at all," Warr says.

Until the suit is settled, the jail will continue to fill up with misdemeanor offenders.

"What we really need that jail for is to house felony perpetrators. People accused of, or convicted of, perpetrating felonies," Burke says.

WLOX News contacted Gulfport City Judge Bill Atchison and court administrator Bill Markopoulos. They referred us to city attorney Harry Hewes. Hewes says he will not comment on pending litigation.

byMarcia Hill

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