Officials in Scott County, MS, settled a lawsuit Wednesday after being accused of jailing impoverished Mississippians for up to a year without legal representation or formal indictments.
The American Civil Liberties Union announced the settlement earlier in the week, after having spent two years representing former inmates Josh Bassett and Octavious Burks.
Both men had been held in Scott County jails for ten months. Neither was appointed a lawyer, and Burks was never even issued an indictment.
Mississippi is among only seven states in the nation to not have a universal public defender system. The lack of options meant that Burks and Bassett, along with thousands of other local detainees, were put in jail with no legal recourse.
“The county must set reasonable limits on the amount of time someone can remain in jail without a lawyer and without charges,” said Brandon Buskey, senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, when the suit was filed in 2014. “Scott County Jail routinely holds people without giving them a lawyer and without formally charging them for months, with no end in sight.”
Under the guidance of the ACLU, the suit expanded from Burks and Bassett to transform into a class action.
Wednesday’s settlement affected Scott County, MS, as well as Neshoba, Clay, and Newton counties, all of which fall under the jurisdiction of the Eighth Judicial District.
“In these four counties, thousands have had weeks, months and even years of their lives stolen from them because they could not afford an attorney or purchase their freedom,” said Buskey. “This settlement closes those trap doors for the poor.”
Under the terms of the settlement, as reported by The Clarion Ledger, all four counties will have to appoint a chief public defender, who will supervise two assistant public defenders.
Scott County’s legal counsel, Will Allen, said the sheriffs, supervisors, judges, and boards of supervisors for each of the four counties were ‘on board’ with the creation of a new public defender system.
“Mississippi has been locking up poor folks without a lawyer and without the ability to make bail for as long as anyone can remember,” said Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law. “We should be ashamed of ourselves. My hope is that other Mississippi counties also will decide to abide by the Constitution and implement similar changes.”
The lawsuit pointed out that Mississippi doesn’t impose a limit on how long a district attorney can take in presenting a case to a grand jury or on how long a detainee can be held without indictment.