Many Mississippi Inmates Too Poor to Pay Bail, Lack Public Defender When Needed: Report

A new report from Mississippi is showing troubling figures about the accessibility of bail and lawyers for the state's incarcerated inmates.

The Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law released a report saying that around 2,800 people have been held longer than 90 days in county jails throughout the state. More than 1,000 of those inmates have been incarcerated for at least nine months and around 730 have been in jail for more than a year. Many of these inmates remain incarcerated because they are unable to post bail.

In a news release sent to coincide the report, director Cliff Johnson said that reporting inconsistencies among counties and class inequality are greatly affecting how long inmates stay in jail, regardless of the severity of their crime.

"The law and our criminal rules say that there is a presumption of release prior to trial and that requiring payment for one's freedom should be the exception rather than the rule," said Johnson.

These thoughts are being echoed by public defenders across the state, such as Mike Carr. According to him, judges often assign inexperienced lawyers to handle public defense work. This process often leads to shoddy trials.

"The people who suffer the most are, of course, the poor," Carr told the Associated Press. "The poor have to rely on a patchwork system of county-funded, part-time criminal defense attorneys that can make more money handling private cases."

Cliff Johnson
A report released on January 12 says thousands of people in Mississippi are held in county jails for long periods while waiting to go on trial because they are too poor to afford bail, judges may deny bail altogether or public defenders might not be available when they're needed. Above, Cliff Johnson speaks to state lawmakers about prisons on February 13, 2020, at the Mississippi State Capitol. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File

Johnson said Mississippi judges "demand that people pay for their liberty" in most felony cases.

Mississippi, Arizona, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Washington are the only states without a statewide system of public defenders, according to the MacArthur Center.

In Mississippi, the expenses for public defenders are paid by local governments, and Johnson said about 85 percent of criminal defendants in the state are represented by public defenders. He said the system is inadequate because the first attorney appointed for a defendant usually handles only preliminary matters. He said no other public defender is appointed until after a person is indicted.

Johnson said the "dead zone" between preliminary court appearances and the time of indictment can be lengthy, and evidence that could clear an accused person could be ignored during that time.

Carr said one of his public defense clients, Recardo Frazier, was arrested in June 2015 on murder and weapons-possession charges in Coahoma County, and a judge denied bond. Frazier remained in jail in a neighboring county until he was brought to trial in February 2020. Carr said jurors could not reach unanimous agreement on a verdict, so the judge declared a mistrial.

After the trial, a judge set bond and Frazier was released from jail. Carr said Frazier is awaiting another trial, and that has been postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.