It's the sound that can make a driver cringe--a traffic stop by a police officer. Qumotria Kennedy of D'iberville, recalls when she was pulled over in Biloxi in 2013. She says the officer gave her three tickets: driving without a license, failure to stop at a stop sign and no insurance. They totaled $1,200.
"That hurts because now I have bills to pay. I have tickets to pay. I was afraid because I didn't know how I was going to be able to get the money to pay for them," said Kennedy.
Kennedy says a Biloxi Municipal Court Judge put her on probation for one year with a for-profit company called Judicial Corrections Services. JCS collected payments for unpaid fines and fees for traffic and misdemeanor cases under a contract with the city. The 36-year old mother of two says she was laid off from her part-time job before she was to meet with the JCS probation officer.
"So, she told me well um, I need to hurry up and find a job. If I can't find a job, I will be going to jail," said Kennedy.
Police arrested her in July of this year on a "Failure to Pay" warrant. Kennedy says she spent five days in jail without being advised of her rights or knowing when she was scheduled for a hearing. Attorney Nusrat Choudhury, with the American Civil Liberties Union in New York, says cash-strapped cities across the country are arresting people who can't afford to pay their fines. But that's against the law.
"Judges are required to inform people of their right to a hearing and to hold a hearing where they assess whether the non-payment was willful or the result of poverty, and to look into whether alternatives to incarceration exist," said Choudhury
Choudhury filed a lawsuit claiming Biloxi is operating a modern day Debtor's Prison, by routinely arresting poor residents to generate revenue. She found Biloxi police arrested more than 400 people last year with no pre-jail hearing to determine their ability to pay. Choudhury says Judicial Correction Services made its money by collecting a $40 monthly supervision fee, in addition to the fines, further putting people in a financial hole. Vincent Creel is a spokesperson for Biloxi.
"Since this is a pending lawsuit, we're limited in what we can say. But we do want to say that in municipal court, we have always strived to protect the rights of all defendants," said Creel.
The City of Jackson is in a legal battle over it's "Stay or Pay policy." Attorneys with Equal Justice Under Law, in Washington, DC and the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law, are accusing the city of operating a Debtor's Prison. Jackson doesn't use a probation company. But the city does have a collection agency pursue unpaid fines from those who've had warrants issued for their arrest. The lawsuit claims the city is jailing indigent people without assessing their ability to pay. Attorney Cliff Johnson is with the MacArthur Justice Center.
"We have plaintiffs, Desare, who have served weeks in jail at the work farm because they couldn't come up with the money that the judge said they had to come up with," said Johnson.
"I had no go to court. It's like pay or stay. If you've got this money or you know, you go to jail,"
That's Darius McCallum of Jackson. He's not named in the lawsuit, but says an officer gave him two tickets during a traffic stop for no insurance and an expired car tag that came to $1,200. McCallum says he couldn't pay the fines and was later arrested. He says he worked off his debt at the Raymond Detention Center Penal Farm, at a rate of $58.00 per day. Mayor Tony Yarber says they have a hard time collecting fines--people take tickets more seriously in the surrounding cities because Jackson doesn't have a jail.
"Because they understand that in the City of Jackson, we don't have anywhere to take you. There's no where to take you. We don't have a standard holding facility that allows us to hold you over three hours. There is no room in the Raymond jail. Everybody knows that," said Yarber.
Gene Newman owns Mississippi Bail Bonding Company and says he's been in and out of courtrooms for almost 40 years. He understands the struggles cities face to collect unpaid fines and fees. Newman says it's not a money issue for some. He believes they just don't care.
"And I see this everyday, day in and day out, in all the courts. They're given multiple occasions to pay. If people can't pay and they're trying to, the judges will work with them," said Newman.
The City of Newton has tried to work with people who owe fines. Mayor David Carr.
"Somebody had a fine of $200 or $300 or $400 or $500. They come to the court they don't have any money on them or they've got $20. We take them in the back. They pay $20. They sign a promissory note for the rest of it, that they're going to come back and they never do," said Carr.
Carr's aware of the lawsuits against Jackson and Biloxi. Still, he recently signed a contract with a probation company to help Newton collect $400,000 in accumulated unpaid fines. But he says they rarely jail anyone, because it cost them $30 a day. MacArthur Justice Center Attorney Cliff Johnson says, debtor's prison is a moral issue.
"We're sending people to jail ultimately because they're poor and in Mississippi, the poorest state in the country, that puts a lot of people at risk," said Johnson.
ACLU attorneys in Jackson are investigating complaints in other cities, including Sardis, Tupelo and Yazoo City.