News Tag: Criminal Justice Reform

Our Work Just Became More Important

November 04, 2015

A Letter from ACLU of Mississippi Executive Director Jennifer Riley-Collins:

At the Jazz Brunch, I told our guest that I was fortunate to lead a team of warriors who stand daily in defense of freedom.  I likened this team to Soldiers who have sworn to protect and defend.  I shared the fact that Soldiers are trained and equipped to be combat ready.  I then distinguished this amazing team from Soldiers - you did not sign up for battle.  And yet here you are on the fighting fields of freedom daily.  I simply want to send this email to say thank you, to commend you and to encourage you. 

I woke this morning, hot spotted myself eager to find out the election results - my heart sank.  I know that on yesterday you heeded the call and all hands were on deck protecting the right to vote and so even more the results of elections may sting a bit.  As a non-profit nonpartisan organization, we are committed to working both sides of the aisle, but there are some whose efforts align more closely with ours and so we are saddened by this outcome. 

As Executive Director of the ACLU of MS, I recognize that our work just became more important.  The work we do may have just become harder, but it is the right work to do.  We must stand in the gap for vulnerable children, especially in schools that are ill equipped to provide education and therefore funnel them into prison.  We must push the envelope on equal protections for all people.  We must ensure criminal justice reforms make social and just sense, not just economic sense, which is the only reason mass incarceration reduction is now the mantra of conservatives.  We must not stand by and feel defeated - there is work yet to be done. 

So this morning, I ask that you breathe deeply, have a cup of coffee, and focus on what lies ahead.  You may not ever see your names in the annals of history (or maybe we will), but know that the work you have chosen to do changes history for others.  Don't feel defeated.  Look at this as an opportunity for determination and say to yourselves and each other, "They may have won this fight, but we will win the war."  You are warriors.  Soldiers fight in defense of freedom.  Warriors fight in defense of the exercise of freedom.  Freedom without the ability to exercise it is futility.  

I am encouraged knowing that each of you has committed himself/herself to making Mississippi better.  Thank you for your bravery.  I salute you.


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Debtors' Prison: This System Tramples on Poor People

October 21, 2015

Today the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of  poor people who were jailed by Biloxi, Mississippi, because of their failure to pay traffic tickets. The lawsuit is the latest action in the pushback against the national problem of modern day debtors' prisons, where people are required to go to jail when they can’t afford to pay the tickets or fines. Two of our clients explain how being sent to prison for small fines and fees can dramatically alter people’s lives for the worse without any public benefit.  Read their accounts below.

Qumotria Kennedy

Qumotria Kennedy

I was a passenger in a car with a friend one day in July when a police officer pulled us over. The officer ran my name for warrants, made me step out of the car, and put handcuffs on me.

From there he took me to the Biloxi police station and then to jail. At the police station, they told me I would have had to pay $1,001 in cash to get out. That was what I owed in traffic fines and fees that I hadn’t been able to pay. They didn’t bring me to court, give me a lawyer, or even tell me that I had a right to one. 

I didn't have the money. I was sad, upset, and crying. I’m a single mom, so I knew I’d have to be in jail and leave my daughter with my friend. My daughter didn’t even know where I was or what happened for an entire night.

No one told me how long I’d be in jail. Each day, I was wondering when I would see my daughter or be brought to court. In the end, I was locked up five days.

When I was in jail, I lost my part-time job. Now I’m just on call as a cleaning person, so I only go to work once or twice a week. I’m struggling on so little.

Now they want me to pay hundreds of dollars a month for my fines and fees. But I just don’t have the money. I asked the probation officer if I could do community service instead, but she said there was nothing she could do.

I owe so much money that I can’t pay. Every day, I worry that I could get arrested and sent back to jail. 

I decided to bring a lawsuit against Biloxi because I don’t like what the city is doing to people. All it cares about is money. Biloxi locked me up for being poor. But it costs them money to keep me in jail. So this system doesn’t even make any sense.

I hope that everybody knows that the system is trampling on poor people, and it’s not fair.

Joseph Anderson

Joseph Anderson

When I got a $200 traffic ticket, I knew I wouldn’t be able to pay it. I made a payment or two from my disability checks, but I was living on so little, I couldn’t pay any more. The Biloxi police issued a warrant on me, but I didn’t know. The police knocked on my door, reached inside, and grabbed me.

My stepson was there, and it felt embarrassing. I felt ashamed because I was always preaching to him about staying out of trouble and here is this police officer who knocks on my door, handcuffs me, and arrests me.

When he put handcuffs on me, it really hurt. My health was really bad. Just a few years before, I had multiple heart attacks and a stroke in just a couple of months.

When Biloxi police arrested me for fines and fees, I wasn’t well. After the heart attacks and stroke, I became physically disabled. I can’t work because my mobility and strength are not what they used to be. Before, I was working at Best Western doing maintenance and mechanic work. Now I’m just living one day at a time. 

I get my Social Security check and pay my bills, and what I have left of that I try to buy gas. It’s hard making ends meet.

When the police took me to jail, they said I could pay $220 in cash for my release. I felt bad because I didn’t have anyone to call who could lend or give me the money. I had just gotten off walking on my crutch, and I really wasn’t functioning right. The food was disgusting. There was a blanket with holes in. They kept me in jail for seven nights.

Do I want to help other people by suing Biloxi? Heck yeah. It’s terrible here. I’m not afraid to go public with how the city is trying to get money from people who just don’t have it.

I hope this lawsuit will help make the system better. I hope people don’t get arrested and jailed for back fines like I did. 

ACLU Challenges Deep South Debtors' Prisons in Pushback Against National Scourge

October 21, 2015

October 21, 2015

CONTACT: Inga Sarda-Sorensen, 212-284-7347,

BILOXI, Miss. — In the latest pushback against the national scourge of debtors' prisons, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit challenging the illegal arrest and jailing of poor people in Biloxi, Mississippi, without a hearing or representation by counsel. Victims are told they can avoid jail only if they pay the entire amount of outstanding court fines and fees up front, in full, and in cash.

"It's essentially a jailhouse shakedown. Cities across the country, like Biloxi, are scrambling to generate revenue, and they're doing it off the backs of poor people," said Nusrat Choudhury, an attorney with the ACLU's Racial Justice Program. "Being poor is not a crime. Yet across America, people are being locked up because they can't afford to pay traffic fines and fees. This lawsuit seeks to dismantle a two-tiered system of justice that punishes the poorest, particularly people of color, more harshly than those with means in flagrant violation of the Constitution."

Today's filing follows a similar ACLU lawsuit brought earlier this month in Washington state, as well as a recent ACLU lawsuit in Georgia that led to systemic reform. Defendants are the city of Biloxi, Biloxi Police Chief John Miller, Judge James Steele, and for-profit Judicial Correction Services, Inc.

The percentage of people living in poverty in Biloxi has doubled since 2009. Yet during this period, the city, through the Biloxi Municipal Court, has aggressively pursued court fines and fee payments from indigent people by issuing warrants when payments are missed. The warrants charge debtors with failure to pay, order their arrest and jailing in the Harrison County Adult Detention Center, and explicitly state that debtors can avoid jail only if they pay the full amount of fines and fees in cash.

"It's like squeezing water from a stone," said Choudhury.