Mississippi police unconstitutionally jailed people in majority-Black city for unpaid fines, Justice Department says

“It’s time to bring an end to a two-tiered system of justice in our country in which a person’s income determines whether they walk free or whether they go to jail,” says Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for civil rights

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A Mississippi police department in one of the nation’s poorest counties unconstitutionally jailed people for unpaid fines without first assessing whether they could afford to pay them, the U.S. Department of Justice said Thursday.

The announcement comes amid a Justice Department probe into alleged civil rights violations by police in Lexington, Mississippi. The ongoing investigation, which began in November, is focused on accusations of systemic police abuses in the majority-Black city of about 1,600 people some 65 miles (100 kilometers) north of the capital of Jackson.

In a letter addressed to Katherine Barrett Riley, the attorney for the city of Lexington, federal prosecutors said the Lexington Police Department imprisons people for outstanding fines without determining whether the person has the means to pay them — a practice that violates the Fourteenth Amendment. Riley did not immediately respond to a phone message Thursday.

A Lexington, Miss., police cruiser is parked outside their facility near the town square, Monday, Aug. 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

“It’s time to bring an end to a two-tiered system of justice in our country in which a person’s income determines whether they walk free or whether they go to jail,” said Kristen Clarke, the department’s assistant attorney general for civil rights. “There is great urgency underlying the issues we have uncovered in Mississippi, and we stand ready to work with officials to end these harmful practices.”

Prosecutors said the conduct of police in Lexington violates the constitution’s prohibition on wealth-based detention. It does so by requiring people who are arrested to pay outstanding fines before they can be released from jail, and by issuing and arresting people on warrants for outstanding fines, they said.

“One-third of Lexington’s residents live below the poverty line. The burden of unjust fines and fees undermines the goals of rehabilitation and erodes the community’s trust in the justice system,” said Todd W. Gee, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi.

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About 86% of Lexington’s population is Black and it has a poverty rate approaching 30%. The area also has a storied place in civil rights history. In 1967, Holmes County residents elected Robert Clark, the first Black man to win a seat in the Mississippi Legislature in the 20th century.

The civil rights division’s sweeping investigation into the Lexington Police Department includes allegations of excessive force, discriminatory policing and First Amendment violations.

The city’s former police chief, Sam Dobbins, was fired after a civil rights organization obtained an audio recording of him using racial slurs and talking about how many people he had killed in the line of duty.

Justice Department officials said they met with city leaders Thursday. The local officials have pledged to work with the Justice Department to reform their procedures, prosecutors said.

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