Civil liberties groups filed a federal class-action lawsuit this week on behalf of jail inmates in Scott County, Ms., a rural area about a 45-minute drive east from Jackson, the state capital, the New York Times reports. The suit charges that inmates at the jail have been “indefinitely detained” and “indefinitely denied counsel” in violation of their constitutional rights. The suit, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the MacArthur Justice Center, says that when people are arrested, steep and “arbitrary” bail amounts are set, with no consideration of a person's ability to pay.
If a defendant applies for indigent defense, Judge Marcus Gordon generally approves, but does not appoint a public defense lawyer until a person is indicted. There is no state law setting a time limit on detention before an indictment. Inmates can sit in jail and wait, with no lawyer and no end in sight. Experts said such circumstances were widespread, even if this was an extreme example. Steep bail amounts and long jail stays without access to a lawyer are particularly common for those charged with misdemeanors, said Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. It is somewhat less common for felony cases. But common or not, Natapoff said, it is still wrong. “This is clearly not what we mean by due process, and this is not what we mean by justice,” she said. “It doesn't have to be unique to be absurd.”