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None should be ‘innocent until proven poor’

Justice is sometimes out of reach for poor people in Mississippi. A case last week in Pearl underscores just how vulnerable low-income offenders can be when they enter the justice system.

A judge is reported to have prevented a mother from seeing her child for more than a year because of unpaid court fees.

Cliff Johnson, an attorney who directs the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi, said he started representing the mother recently, The Associated Press reported. He said the mother and her then 4-month-old baby were passengers in a car that was stopped for a traffic violation in August 2016. Johnson said the judge gave the grandmother custody of the baby after learning the mother had misdemeanor charges pending, which included court fees.

“As a civil rights lawyer in Mississippi, I am no stranger to injustice, but for a judge to prohibit an impoverished mother from having any contact with her baby until monetary payments are made is shocking and repugnant,” Johnson said in a news release. “Such orders are tantamount to judicial kidnapping.”

The judge called the news release “lies” but resigned from his post. He did not specifically dispute the information presented by Johnson. Denying a mother access to her child due to unpaid court fees is an abuse of power and the opposite of justice. 

This case is unique in its cruelty, but poor offenders often are given a version of justice that looks different than what their wealthier peers may experience.

Low-income offenders may be presumed innocent until proven guilty, but unless they can come up with bail money, they spend far more time behind bars than offenders who are better off financially.

It is incumbent upon those with power in the legal system to ensure poor people receive the same measure of justice as everyone else. This case in Pearl should be a wake-up call for the justice system.