Previously under Mississippi law, the State would automatically suspend a license, without asking people why they could not pay and without giving them extra time to pay or an alternative punishment like community service. Worse under Mississippi law, people were being thrown in jail for non-payment of the fine. Municipal charges would result in a person being held in jail until they paid bail money or their fine, without taking into account their ability to pay.
All in the name of revenue. Forget justice.
This practice was followed despite the absence of legal authority to do so. “Incarceration shall not follow the nonpayment of a fine, restitution, and/or court costs. Incarceration may be employed only after the court has conducted a hearing and examined the reasons for nonpayment and finds, on the record, that the defendant could have made payment but refused to do so.” Cassibry v. State, 453 So. 2d 1298, 1299 (Miss. 1984) (If a defendant is “‘financially unable to pay a fine’ and the trial court so finds, [the defendant] may not be imprisoned, period.” (emphasis in original)).
For instance, the city of Corinth, Mississippi and Municipal Court Judge John C. Ross were operating a modern-day debtors’ prison, unlawfully jailing poor people for their inability to pay bail and fines. If Judge Ross does not order the defendant to pay the fine amount in full but instead allows the person to pay in installments, he would typically direct the defendant to go to the clerk’s office to arrange for a payment plan, which the court refered to as “part pay.” Deputy clerks, under Judge Ross’s direction, would detain in the clerk’s office any person who Judge Ross ordered to pay a fine until the individual could come up with the minimum amount needed to participate in a payment plan. If a person was unable to make the required down payment by the end of the day, they are jailed until the fine is paid or the person has sat out the fine at a rate of $25 per day. While state law required any payment plan to be “realistic,” Cassibry, 453 So. 2d at 1299, Judge Ross did not tailor the amount of the payment plan to what a defendant could realistically afford to pay. He instead used a standard $100 per month plan. Judge Ross generally instructed the deputy clerks to require a person to pay an additional $50 fee to participate in the payment plan and required any person placed on a payment plan to pay a minimum of $100 per month toward the balance on the fine and court costs. Judge Ross did not inquire into ability to pay or willfulness before sending a person to the clerk’s office with instructions to jail them for non-payment.
Wisconsin follows a similar practice in suspending a driver’s license for nonpayment of a fine without ever taking into account a person’s ability to pay.
With poverty skyrocketing in our society, this type of government sanctioned debtor prison is an abomination. Ultimately, this Mississippi practice resulted in a federal lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). As said by Sam Brooke, SPLC deputy legal director, “Poverty is not a traffic crime. There is a growing recognition across the country that people should not face additional punishment just because of their poverty, and that includes taking away their driver’s licenses when they can’t pay fines.”
Unlike Wisconsin, Mississippi has come to its senses. Mississippi will reinstate more than 100,000 driver’s licenses that were suspended for non-payment of traffic tickets and will no longer suspend licenses for failure to pay fines, under an agreement that was announced between the SPLC, the Mississippi Department of Public Safety (DPS) and another organization.