The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Mississippi judge resigns after barring mother from seeing newborn because of unpaid court fees


Even in the annals of “oppressive things done to poor people due to unpaid court fees,” this story seems particularly monstrous. It comes via a press release from the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi.

In August 2016, “Mother A,” an African-American resident of Jackson, was traveling through Pearl while looking for employment. She was a passenger in a friend’s car, and her child rode with them in a car seat. When the car was stopped for a minor traffic violation, it was discovered that both adults had outstanding warrants for routine misdemeanor offenses. Upon arresting the women, the officer contacted DHS claiming that the child was “abandoned” as a result of the women being detained. The baby’s grandmother arrived on the scene within minutes, yet the officer still insisted that the child be taken before Judge [John] Shirley at the Pearl Youth Court. Less than half an hour later, Judge Shirley awarded custody to the baby’s grandmother. An order was later entered prohibiting “Mother A” from having any contact with her baby until court fees were paid in full.

The mother has been forbidden from any contact with her newborn for 14 of the 18 months the child has been alive. After reaching out to the MacArthur Center, an attorney there looked into the matter and found other cases in which the judge had barred poor people from seeing their children until they paid off court fines.

The good news is that the judge has now resigned and the youth court in Pearl, Miss., has been closed. But this clearly goes beyond a single judge. A police officer detained someone, causing her to be separated from her newborn, over unpaid misdemeanors. The officer then claimed she had abandoned the baby, despite the fact that it was the officer’s actions, not hers, that left the child without a parent.

I can’t help but wonder how many times this has happened to other poor people in Pearl. Or how many times it has happened to other poor people in Mississippi. Over the past few years, it has become clear that public officials across the state have been doing things to poor people that are almost too cruel to believe. A sampling of recent headlines:

A number of cities and counties in Mississippi not only sentence people to probation for unpaid misdemeanors but also contract the probation services out to private companies. As we’ve discussed before here at The Watch, those companies then have every incentive to keep people on probation for as long as possible. Every person that successfully completes probation is one less customer. This, of course, is precisely the opposite of what probation is supposed to do. From a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch: 

In Mississippi, a middle-aged woman was fined $377 for driving without a valid license. Months later, she called the court in tears because her company probation officer was threatening to have her jailed over $500 in unpaid supervision fees she said she could not afford. At the time she was trying to make ends meet working the night shift at a local gas station.

The woman had paid off her $377 ticket. The money she still owed was the debt to the probation company.

In Jackson, Mississippi the court of Circuit Judge Tomie Greene routinely sentences felony defendants to pretrial supervision with a local probation company that charges them supervision fees. The court generally does not offer any specific rationale for this in the individual case and does not even specify what conditions of supervision should apply. Instead, it issues conditional bond orders that simply require defendants to comply with “whatever conditions and fees” the company might choose to impose.”

If you can’t pay those fees, the court issues a warrant for your arrest.

While a judge must sign the arrest warrants in those cases, it is often a company employee who prepares the warrant and presents it to the judge for signature. Some judges do not make the time even to verify why the warrants are being requested, or that they have been sworn under oath. As one Mississippi judge whose court contracts with a private probation company put it, “You get a lot of paperwork and you see it and they give their reasons there and you just sign it. You don’t have time to scrutinize everything.” …
In Greenwood, Mississippi, Municipal Judge Carlos Palmer told Human Rights Watch that he had “maybe two or three” active arrest warrants out for [probation company Judicial Correction Services] probationers. But data later obtained by Human Rights Watch showed that as of August 2013 there were 295 active warrants for JCS probationers issued by his court—25 percent of JCS’ total caseload there at the time. Judge Palmer’s caseload contains a heavy preponderance of traffic offenses.

There has been some movement toward reform in Mississippi, but as the case that began this post illustrates, this stuff is ingrained. The system is polluted with perverse incentives. It’s going to take a while to find and correct them all.

ADDENDUM:  Twitter user Stephanie Sweedler points out that the judge, John Shirley merely resigned from the youth court, which was his own creation. He still serves as a district court judge for Rankin County, Mississippi.  The Jackson Clarion-Ledger also reported the story earlier today, and noted that since the article went up, other women have said they’ve had similar experiences.