fbpx
Connect with us

Mississippi Today

Abortion is technically both legal and illegal in Mississippi. New lawsuit asks Supreme Court to clarify

Published

on

Abortion is technically both legal and illegal in Mississippi. New lawsuit asks Supreme Court to clarify

A Jackson-based conservative think-tank filed a Monday that aims to clear up a bizarre legal conundrum in Mississippi: that is technically both legal and illegal at the same time.

The Mississippi Center for Public Policy filed a lawsuit Monday in an attempt to get the state Supreme Court to reverse its 1998 ruling that said the Mississippi Constitution provides a right to an abortion.

Advertisement

That decades-old ruling — Pro Choice — has been in conflict with two new state laws that took effect this summer after the U.S. Supreme overturned Roe v. Wade, which had previously established a national right to an abortion.

After the in late June overturning Roe v. Wade, two Mississippi laws went into effect. One banned all abortions except in cases of rape and when the life of the mother was in jeopardy. A second law banned all abortions except for cases of medical emergency.

But at Mississippi Center for Public Policy say those two laws are in conflict with the state Supreme Court ruling that said the state constitution provides a right to an abortion. The center's lawsuit attempts to ensure the two new laws that restrict abortion are not negated by the 1998 Pro Choice Mississippi v. Fordice ruling.

“This legal uncertainty has placed Mississippi physicians in an impossible ‘Catch-22,'” said the center's news release. “…Whether elective abortions are ‘lawful' in Mississippi depends on whether the 's opinion in Fordice is still valid.”

Advertisement

READ MORE: Mississippi, where abortion is technically both legal and illegal at the same time

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade came in a case brought by Mississippi and argued by the office of state Attorney General Lynn Fitch. The landmark case — Dobbs v. Jackson Women Health Organization — resulted in the state's only abortion clinic closing.

“In the Dobbs case, Mississippi secured a major victory for human rights and the rule of law,” said Aaron Rice, director of the Mississippi Justice Institute, which is the legal arm of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy. “Now it's time to finish the job and protect the right to life in the state that took Roe down.”

The case was filed in Hinds County Chancery Court. The press release said it will be up to the state Supreme Court to ultimately rule on whether to reverse the ruling providing a right to an abortion in the Mississippi Constitution.

Advertisement

Right after the U.S. Supreme Court decision, , then providing abortion services in Jackson, took legal action in Hinds County Chancery Court to block the enactment of the laws banning abortion in Mississippi. The , arguing on behalf of the Jackson Women's Health Organization, said that the state laws banning abortions would not trump the Mississippi Supreme Court ruling saying that the Constitution provided a right to an abortion.

READ MORE: Supreme Court rejects plea for quick ruling on effort to stop abortion ban

In an unusual ruling in early July, Chancery Judge Debbra Halford of Meadville, appointed to hear the case by the state Supreme Court, refused to block the laws banning abortions. One of her primary reasons for not blocking the laws is because she predicted the current state Supreme Court would reverse the ruling providing a right to abortion in the Mississippi Constitution.

The Mississippi Center for Justice appealed to the Supreme Court. But the state's highest court refused to take up the case on an expedited schedule. During the uncertainty, Jackson Women's Health Organization closed and the Mississippi Center for Justice dropped the appeal.

Advertisement

Now the conservative leaning Mississippi Center for Public Policy is trying to renew the case.

“We will review this lawsuit and consider whether we should intervene,” said Rob McDuff, an attorney with the Mississippi Center for Justice that represented the Jackson Women's Health Organization.

The Mississippi Justice Institute has brought the lawsuit on behalf of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, according to the news release.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Advertisement

Mississippi Today

Lawmakers could limit when county officials in Mississippi can jail people awaiting psychiatric treatment

Published

on

This article was produced for ProPublica's Local Reporting Network in partnership with Mississippi Today. Sign up for Dispatches to get stories like this one as soon as they are published.

Key Mississippi lawmakers have introduced several bills that would drastically limit when people can be jailed without criminal charges as they await court-ordered psychiatric treatment.

The proposals follow an investigation by Mississippi Today and ProPublica finding that hundreds of people in the are jailed without charges every year as they go through the civil commitment process, in which a judge can force people to undergo treatment if they're deemed dangerous to themselves or others. People who were jailed said they were treated like criminal defendants and received no mental health care. Since 2006, at least 17 people have died after being jailed during the commitment process, raising questions about whether jails can protect people in the midst of a mental health crisis.

lawyers contend Mississippi's practice is unconstitutional because it amounts to punishing people for mental illness, but the state's civil commitment allows it. That law spells out the process by which people suffering from severe mental illness can be detained, evaluated and ordered into treatment. Under the law, those people can be held in jail until they're admitted to a state psychiatric hospital or another mental health facility if there is “no reasonable alternative.” If there isn't room at a publicly funded facility or open beds are too far away, local officials often conclude that they have no other option besides jail.

“Putting a person in jail because they're hearing voices and you don't know what to do with them — that's not right,” said state Rep. Kevin Felsher, R-Biloxi, one of the lawmakers behind legislation to curtail the practice. The stories, he said, showed that people are jailed for longer than he thought and that Mississippi is unique in doing so.

Advertisement

The proposals represent the biggest effort to change the state's civil commitment process since at least 2010, according to a of legislation and interviews with mental health advocates. That year, lawmakers standardized the commitment process across the state and gave county officials the option to call on crisis teams before initiating the commitment process. A measure that would have prohibited jail detentions altogether ultimately failed.

A bill proposed by Felsher would allow jail detentions during the commitment process only for “protective custody purposes and only while awaiting transportation” to a medical facility. It would restrict such detentions to 72 hours. 

A bill authored by House Public Health Chairman Sam Creekmore, R-New Albany, chair of the House Public Health and Human Services Committee, would clamp down on the practice even more, allowing counties to jail people without criminal charges only if they are “actively violent” and for no longer than 24 hours. 

The vast majority of the 2,000 jail detentions in 19 counties analyzed by Mississippi Today and ProPublica lasted longer than 24 hours. About 1,200 lasted longer than 72 hours. (Those figures include detentions between 2019 and 2022 for both mental illness and substance abuse; the legislation would address only the commitment process for mental illness.)

Advertisement
Rep. Sam Creekmore, R-New Albany, has proposed a bill that would prohibit jail detentions for people going through the civil commitment process unless they are “actively violent” and would limit such detentions to 24 hours. The vast majority of detentions in 19 counties over four years lasted longer than that, according to an analysis by Mississippi Today and ProPublica. (Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today) Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Creekmore's bill, which passed out of committee without opposition Thursday, aims to reduce unnecessary commitments by generally requiring people to be screened for mental illness before paperwork can be filed to have them committed. Those screenings would be conducted in most cases by community mental health centers — independent organizations, partly funded by state grants, that are supposed to mental health care close to home. That bill also would require those organizations to treat people while they're in jail.

A bill authored by Sen. Nicole Boyd, R-Oxford, to increase state oversight of community mental health centers contains language similar to Creekmore's proposal restricting jail detentions. Her bill has been referred to the Judiciary A committee, which is chaired by one of its co-authors, Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula.

The bills would bring Mississippi more in line with other states that allow people going through the civil commitment process to be jailed in limited circumstances. South Dakota permits jail detentions without criminal charges but limits them to 24 hours. Wyoming permits them in an “extreme emergency” and only for 72 hours before a hearing. 

The Mississippi Department of Mental Health says reforming the commitment process is a priority this legislative . “We don't want someone to have to wait in jail simply because they need mental health treatment,” said Wendy Bailey, director of the agency, at a January conference attended by county officials from all over the state.

But the Mississippi Association of Supervisors, which represents county governments, has raised questions about whether the bills would force county officials to spend more money. Under state law, counties are responsible for housing residents going through the commitment process until they are admitted to a state hospital. Some local officials contend they don't have any place other than jail to put people.

Advertisement

“I think you'll find all 82 clerks, all 82 sheriffs, all 400 supervisors understand that the jail is not the place they need to be,” said Bill Benson, who as Lee County's chancery clerk coordinates the commitment process there. “But there has to be a place. If it's not the jail, there has to be a place available.”

Derrick Surrette, executive director of the Mississippi Association of Supervisors, said county are “all for” keeping people out of jail while they wait for mental health care. But, he said, they're concerned that they'll be forced to pay for treatment in private facilities because there aren't enough publicly funded beds. None of the proposals would expand publicly funded treatment beds, nor would they provide funding to counties. The association hasn't taken a position on the bills to limit jail detentions.

“It's a whole lot of legislation being proposed telling the county and a regional mental facility what to do,” Surrette said. “Is there very much in there telling what the state shall do?”

The Department of Mental Health advises local officials to direct people who need to outpatient mental health care when appropriate and to rely on the civil commitment process only when needed. If the commitment process can't be avoided, the department says officials should work with their local community mental health centers to seek alternatives to jail.

Advertisement
A padded cell used to hold people awaiting psychiatric evaluation and court-ordered treatment at the Adams County jail in Natchez, Mississippi. Lacey Robinette Handjis, a 37-year-old hospice care consultant and mother of two, was found dead in one of the jail's two padded cells in late August, less than 24 hours after she was booked with no criminal charges to await mental health treatment. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

The state has expanded the number of beds in crisis stabilization units, which are designed to provide short-term treatment in a less restrictive setting than state hospitals. Chancery clerks and sheriff's deputies complain that those facilities frequently refuse to accept people they deem to be violent or in need of additional medical care, though state data shows those refusals are declining. 

An additional bill filed by Felsher would require counties to pay for care at a medical facility if a judge has ordered someone into treatment, no publicly funded bed is available and the person can't pay for treatment. Although the Mississippi Association of Supervisors hasn't taken a position on that bill, either, it opposed a similar provision last year because the measure didn't provide any funding.

At a hearing in November 2022, Felsher asked Benson, the chancery clerk in Lee County, whether he would support his county paying hospitals to treat residents as an alternative to jail. Benson responded that if he did, “My supervisors would hang me.”

Benson said in an interview that it costs just $40 a day on average to jail someone in Lee County. By contrast, Neshoba County, which is among those that contract with private providers, pays between $625 and $675 a day to Alliance Health Center to treat county residents when no public bed is available.

Felsher said he hopes to expand the availability of public treatment facilities so counties aren't on the hook except in rare circumstances. But he also said he believes the cost of alternatives can't justify jailing people who haven't been charged with crimes.

Advertisement

“We can't send people with mental illness to jail because the county doesn't want to pay for it,” he said. “If it is a fight, it's a fight that I will have. We may not win it, but we'll have it.”

Staffers with Disability Rights Mississippi say the bills don't go far enough because they don't ban jail detentions outright. At least a dozen states, including neighboring Alabama, Louisiana and Tennessee, have done so.

Without such a ban, Disability Rights Mississippi staff say they're planning to sue the state and some counties, alleging the practice is unconstitutional. A federal in Alabama led to a ruling in 1984 prohibiting the practice there.

“Mississippi Today's reporting has revealed the horrifying scope of this problem, including those who have met an untimely death and data to back it up,” said Polly Tribble, the organization's director. “I hope that, in light of these dire situations, the Legislature will be motivated to address these issues.”

Advertisement

Bailey, head of the state Department of Mental Health, said she was not aware of the possibility of litigation until Mississippi Today asked about it. She said her agency is working to find ways to make sure people get mental health treatment without going through the civil commitment process, and to restrict the use of jail when they do.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Continue Reading

Mississippi Today

Justice Department warns Lexington to end ‘discriminatory policing’

Published

on

Justice Department officials sent a letter Thursday to the Lexington Department, raising questions about its use of force, fines, arrests and “discriminatory policing.”

“Lexington must stop jailing people for outstanding fines without assessing their ability to pay,” Assistant Kristen Clarke for the Division and U.S. Attorney Todd Gee for the Southern District of Mississippi wrote in a joint letter.

City Attorney Katherine Riley responded Thursday, “We welcome the Justice Department's presence, and we think it's going to be a positive to the city of Lexington, to the police department and to the people. We are working to make better changes.”

Last April, Justice Department officials put out a letter explaining that courts needed to determine a person's ability to pay before putting them behind bars.

In November, Clarke announced that the Justice Department had opened a civil rights investigation to determine whether the Lexington Police Department engaged in a pattern or practice of conduct that violated the Constitution and federal .

Advertisement

“Specifically, we will assess whether the police department uses excessive force; violates people's civil and constitutional rights during , searches and arrests; engages in discriminatory policing; or violates people's rights to engage in speech or conduct protected by the Constitution,” she said in a press conference.

In Thursday's letter, she wrote that the Lexington Police Department “may not force people to remain in jail because they cannot afford to pay a fine or processing fee. LPD may not require payment as a of release unless it has conducted an appropriate assessment of the person's ability to pay. If the person cannot afford to pay the fine, LPD may not jail them unless there are no alternatives that would satisfy its interests in punishment and deterrence.”

In a statement, Clarke said, “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 or whether they go to jail. Unjust enforcement of fines and fees is unlawful, and it traps people and their families in a vicious cycle of poverty and punishment. 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 and ensure the civil and constitutional rights of Lexington are protected.”

Gee noted that a third of those residing in Lexington “ 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. Each step we take towards fair and just policing rebuilds that trust. Lexington and LPD can take those steps now, while our investigation is ongoing.”

Advertisement

In the joint letter, Justice Department officials warned police against seeking unlawful arrest warrants for people who owe fines.

These bench warrants “are not predicated on any ability-to-pay analysis,” the letter says. “They do not demand that the person come before the court. Instead, they order LPD to arrest the person and jail them for a certain number of days unless they pay the outstanding fine that they owe.”

Justice Department officials asked Lexington officials “to assess the serious concerns” identified in the letter and share how they plan to remedy them.

“We will continue to examine whether there is a pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement that deprives people of their rights related to the collection and enforcement of fines and fees in violation of federal law,” the letter said.

Advertisement

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Continue Reading

Mississippi Today

Justice Department warns Lexington to end ‘two-tiered system of justice’

Published

on

Justice Department officials sent a letter Thursday to the Lexington Police Department, raising questions about its use of force, fines, arrests and “discriminatory policing.”

“Lexington must stop jailing people for outstanding fines without assessing their ability to pay,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke for the Division and U.S. Attorney Todd Gee for the Southern District of Mississippi wrote in a joint letter.

Attorney Katherine Riley responded Thursday, “We welcome the Justice Department's presence, and we think it's going to be a positive to the city of Lexington, to the police department and to the people. We are working to make better changes.”

Last April, Justice Department officials put out a letter explaining that courts needed to determine a person's ability to pay before putting them behind bars.

On June 10, Lexington police attorney Jill Collen Jefferson, who was a traffic stop from her car, and she spent the in jail. The arrest came after she filed lawsuits against the city of Lexington and its police department for allegedly abusing its Black .

Advertisement

She was convicted, and a judge has since rescinded those misdemeanor convictions.

Jefferson called the Justice Department's actions Thursday “a step in the right direction, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. The police department targets, harasses and violently abuses Black and brown residents. The extremely egregious behavior of these should not only be acknowledged, but we need action so this abuse to a full stop. The people of Lexington need justice.”

She said she looks forward to what else Justice Department officials find “as they continue their investigation.”

In November, Clarke announced that the Justice Department had opened a civil rights investigation to determine whether the Lexington Police Department engaged in a pattern or practice of conduct that violated the Constitution and federal law.

Advertisement

“Specifically, we will assess whether the police department uses excessive force; violates people's civil and constitutional rights during stops, searches and arrests; engages in discriminatory policing; or violates people's rights to engage in speech or conduct protected by the Constitution,” she said in a press conference.

In Thursday's letter, she wrote that the Lexington Police Department “may not force people to remain in jail because they cannot afford to pay a fine or processing fee. LPD may not require payment as a condition of release unless it has conducted an appropriate assessment of the person's ability to pay. If the person cannot afford to pay the fine, LPD may not jail them unless there are no alternatives that would satisfy its interests in punishment and deterrence.”

In a statement, Clarke said, “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 or whether they go to jail. Unjust enforcement of fines and fees is unlawful, and it traps people and their families in a vicious cycle of poverty and punishment. 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 and ensure the civil and constitutional rights of Lexington residents are protected.”

Gee noted that a third of those residing in Lexington “ 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. Each step we take towards fair and just policing rebuilds that trust. Lexington and LPD can take those steps now, while our investigation is ongoing.”

Advertisement

In the joint letter, Justice Department officials warned police against seeking unlawful arrest warrants for people who owe fines.

These bench warrants “are not predicated on any ability-to-pay analysis,” the letter says. “They do not demand that the person come before the court. Instead, they order LPD to arrest the person and jail them for a certain number of days unless they pay the outstanding fine that they owe.”

Justice Department officials asked Lexington officials “to assess the serious concerns” identified in the letter and share how they plan to remedy them.

“We will continue to examine whether there is a pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers that deprives people of their rights related to the collection and enforcement of fines and fees in violation of federal law,” the letter said.

Advertisement

UPDATE 2/29/24: This story was updated to include the comments of civil rights attorney Jill Collen Jefferson,

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Did you miss our previous article…
https://www.biloxinewsevents.com/?p=336390

Continue Reading

News from the South

Trending