After several different high-profile investigations of judicial practices and police departments around the country, one thing we know is that the inability to pay court fees and/or bail can be a reason for someone to needlessly stay involved in the criminal justice system. This is why advocates say that reforming these kinds of practices are necessary for economic justice. But it’s also necessary in order to respect the dignity of poor families. Because apparently, in Mississippi, unpaid court fees can be a reason to keep a mother away from her child.
A judge resigned Wednesday and the city of Pearl voted to close its youth court after city leaders learned the judge had kept a mother from seeing her child for over a year, due to unpaid court fees.
Last week, attorneys for the mother contacted Pearl city officials and informed them of the judge’s order—and allegations that he had issued similar orders, according to a news release from the MacArthur Center for Justice at the University of Mississippi School of Law. The city called an emergency meeting for Wednesday night, where Judge John Shirley, who had been the sole youth court judge in Pearl, resigned. The board of aldermen also voted to close the youth court.
For some, it’s tempting to play both sides and defend the system with questions of “What did she do?” But we don’t really need to know all the intricate details of the case to understand that preventing a parent from being with their child because of unpaid fees is totally wrong and a hideous abuse of power. Lots of people in this country are poor (millions, in fact) and can’t afford the exorbitant fees that can pile up over time for things as routine as a traffic ticket. That has absolutely nothing to do with their ability to parent their kids. But somehow this judge felt this was an appropriate punishment.
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