Lengthy Pretrial Incarceration Continues in Mississippi Jails

Published 4:40 pm Monday, December 17, 2018

Database creators urge Legislature to establish uniform system of reporting lockup data

Staff Report

OXFORD – According to findings made available to the public by the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law, the vast majority of the 5,534 men and women detained in local Mississippi jails are not serving sentences for criminal convictions but instead are awaiting their day in court to face charges, and nearly half the detainees have been in jail for more than 90 days.

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The initial version of the database, released in April 2018, identified 7,193 such detainees. Besides the names of those held in jail, the database provides dates of arrest, charges against each detainee, the amount of time each person has been in jail, average length of detention in each Mississippi county and a comparison of the April and November databases. The information used to create the database was obtained directly from “jail lists” produced by Mississippi sheriffs pursuant to court rules.

Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center’s Mississippi office, expressed continued concern regarding lengthy pretrial incarceration.

“Our database confirms that long-term pretrial incarceration of poor Mississippians, attributable primarily to improper and illegal use of the money bail system, continues to be a significant problem that costs counties millions of dollars.” Johnson said. “Our estimate is that Mississippi counties collectively are paying between $80 million and $100 million each year to lock up people who have not yet been convicted of any crime.”

A search of the database reveals that more than 2,600 people have been detained in local jails for longer than 90 days. Of those, 1,603 have been held for longer than 180 days, 1,035 for longer than 270 days, and 675 for longer than a year.

Johnson explained that lengthy periods of pretrial incarceration is of particular concern in Mississippi and is due, at least in part, to a combination of factors unique to the state.

“In addition to the widespread illegal and improper use of money bail, other significant factors are that grand juries meet infrequently in Mississippi’s many rural counties, and that prosecutors across the state, for a variety of reasons, often are slow to present cases to the grand jury,” Johnson said.

“There is no limit in Mississippi on how long a person can be held prior to indictment, so detainees can wait up to a year or more before even being formally charged with a crime. They wait months after that for their trial date.”

The MacArthur Justice Center has asked the Mississippi Supreme Court to adopt a rule limiting the amount of time a person can be held in jail before indictment, but the court has declined to do so.

While the updated database shows a 24 percent decrease in the jail population since the April report, there is no clear explanation for the change.

“I believe the decrease is attributable, at least in part, to our public disclosure of information regarding the people locked up in our jails coupled with recent litigation in Mississippi reminding judges and other participants in the criminal justice system of what the law says about the proper use of money bail and the illegality of incarcerating poor folks for unpaid fines and fees,” Johnson said.

“At this point, we can only provide limited ‘snapshots’ of Mississippi’s jail population at different points in time,” he said. “We urge the Mississippi Legislature to require the implementation of a uniform statewide system of reporting jail data that is available to the public and provides comprehensive real-time information about who is in our county jails and why.

“This tool would enable judges, lawyers, legislators, politicians and the public to make informed decisions regarding how best to make certain that our criminal justice system is efficient and fair.”

“Jail data available to everyone is a valuable tool in our struggle to reform the criminal justice system,” said Andre DeGruy, state defender for Mississippi. “Research shows that people who are in jail pretrial are more likely to get convicted and receive longer sentences for the same crimes as those who are not incarcerated pretrial.

“They are also more likely to need the services of a public defender than the person who can get out and go to work while awaiting trial. Excessive pretrial detention strains every part of the system.

“Being able to see who’s in jail and how long they have been serving allows us to shine a light on the dark places in our system and can facilitate error correction, whether that means getting the person moved to state custody, a mental health facility or back home.”

Gipsy Escobar, director of research at Measures for Justice in Rochester, New York, has reviewed the new database. Measures for Justice works across the country to develop a data-driven set of performance measures to assess and compare the criminal justice process from arrest to post-conviction on a county-by-county basis.

“The MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law has done tremendous work to collect jail data, literally by hand,” Escobar said. “Absent any other information about jails in Mississippi, this is the best we have.

The updated version of the center’s comprehensive database identifies the 5,534 detainees in Mississippi’s county and regional jails and can be accessed at https://msjaildata.com/.