Yesterday, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Mississippi, and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center filed a class action suit “against the Scott County (Mississippi) sheriff, district attorney, and judges…” The three organizations did so after learning that the Scott County Detention Center has been holding “people for as long as a year without appointing counsel and without indicting them.” The groups involved in the lawsuit claim that the “county’s practices violate the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments’ rights to counsel, to a speedy trial, and to a fair bail hearing.”
Excerpt from the ACLU’s press release:
“This is indefinite detention, pure and simple. Scott County jail routinely holds people without giving them a lawyer and without formally charging them for months, with no end in sight. For those waiting for indictment, the county has created its own Constitution-free zone,” said Brandon Buskey, Staff Attorney at the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “These prisoners’ cases are frozen, their lives outside the jail are disintegrating, and they haven’t even been charged with a crime. The county has tossed these people into a legal black hole.”
The ACLU said that Joshua Bassett, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, has been held in the detention center since January 16 of this year. He has been denied both an attorney and a grand jury hearing. Octavious Burks, another plaintiff, “has been in the jail since November 18, 2013.” Neither man could afford his bail. The ACLU added that “Mr. Burks has been through this ordeal twice before. Since 2009, he has been jailed in Scott County on three separate charges without indictment or counsel.”
The ACLU reportedly has evidence that many other individuals have also “been trapped in the Scott County Detention Center for months at a time because they couldn’t pay bail and, like Mr. Bassett and Mr. Burks, were denied counsel and a grand jury hearing.”
Why are some people wasting away in jail in Scott County—as well as in other parts of Mississippi? Because they have never been formally charged with a crime. The ACLU said that’s how it works in that state. The ACLU added, “No one gets a public defender until they’ve been indicted. In other places, this might not be a big deal. In Colorado, prosecutors have 72 hours after an arrest to formally indict someone. In Kansas, it’s two weeks. But in Scott County and throughout Mississippi, the wait could last forever. That’s because Mississippi doesn’t limit how long a prosecutor has to indict someone…”
The Constitution protects you from being arbitrarily imprisoned on a mere allegation. When you’re accused of a crime, you have a right to an attorney, even if you can’t afford one. You have a right to a speedy trial. Scott County cannot pretend as if the Constitution doesn’t apply in its courts. That’s why the ACLU yesterday filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of Octavious and others trapped in the Scott County jail, demanding that local judges, sheriffs, and district attorneys change the way they do business.
Charlie Pierce (Esquire) said that—according to the ACLU’s complaint—this is how it works in Scott County, Mississippi:
…You get busted. You are poor. You are likely black, but this is not about race because nothing ever is about race. The judge in your case sets a bail figure far beyond your ability either to pay it, or to get someone to go your bond. You sit in jail. You declare yourself indigent. The judge fails to assign you legal counsel. You sit in jail. The judge and prosecutors don’t indict you. The judge says you can’t be indicted until you have a lawyer, which he has neglected to assign you. You sit in jail. Joseph Heller’s ghost comes to Mississippi and sues for copyright infringement.
Mississippi, Goddamn, Cont’d (Charles Pierce/Esquire)