A new survey provided to The Associated Press suggests that the number of Mississippi inmates jailed for short periods may be declining, but that those in jail for longer is holding steady. Criminal justice experts and state lawmakers say they need more data to help determine why so many people are in jail, what’s keeping them there, and what Mississippi should do about it. The survey by the MacArthur Justice Center shows almost half of the more than 5,000 people jailed stayed for 90 or more consecutive days. More than 600 had been in jail longer than a year, but that includes an unknown number of people serving sentences in jails and not just awaiting trial.
Long pretrial detentions are particularly prevalent in Mississippi because of impoverished inmates who can’t make bail, delays in appointing public defenders, slow processing of evidence and infrequent meetings of local courts because of the state’s rural nature. Cliff Johnson, a University of Mississippi law professor who has led data collection, blames many extended detentions on judges who set bail that poor defendants can’t pay. MacArthur has repeatedly sued cities and counties in Mississippi for jailing poor people who can’t afford to pay bail or fines. He says prosecutors often drag their feet on indicting jailed suspects and said the state Supreme Court isn’t doing enough to guarantee speedy trials to defendants. “There is no limit in Mississippi on how long a person can be held prior to indictment, so detainees can wait up to a year or more before even being formally charged with a crime,” Johnson said. “They wait months after that for their trial date.” The most recent census conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2013, showed an average pretrial jail stay in Mississippi of 40 days, the sixth-longest in the country.