Group dismisses lawsuit

1st February, 2007
The Sun Herald
Joshua Norman

GULFPORT - The Southern Center for Human Rights is dismissing its "debtors' prison" lawsuit against the city today, according to officials.

In a letter to Jeffrey Bruni with the city attorney's office obtained Wednesday by the Sun Herald, SCHR attorney Sarah Geraghty writes the city has remedied most of the issues introduced in the lawsuit Thomas v. City of Gulfport, which was filed in 2005 in conjunction with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

"There were violations of the Constitution occurring at the Gulfport Municipal Court on a daily basis," the letter states. "Indigent defendants were not advised of the right to counsel, court files were in disarray resulting in multiple terms of incarceration for the same crime, and the county jail was packed with misdemeanants too poor to pay their fines. Thanks to the efforts by the Mayor, Dr. John Kelly, and Court personnel, the systematic constitutional violations we witnessed in 2005 are no longer occurring."

Neither Geraghty nor anyone else in the city attorney's office or at the SCHR was available for comment Wednesday evening.

However, Kelly, the former court administrator and current chief administrative officer, said he was ecstatic upon hearing the news for the first time.

"We had hoped that that would happen," Kelly said. "We had every reason to believe that that would happen."

Kelly said he spoke with representatives from SCHR just two weeks ago and had had very positive conversations.

"They were very happy with what was going on in the courts," Kelly said.

The city's municipal court recently became the state's busiest in terms of volume.

Since the lawsuit was filed, the court got a new filing system, implemented an "Amnesty Week" that allowed people to pay overdue fines without penalty, doubled its budget for public defenders and instituted a program that allows defendants to perform community service in lieu of fines if they are unable to afford them, Kelly said.

Many of the changes implemented since the lawsuit was filed had more to do with getting things right than the lawsuit itself, Kelly said.

"I'd say it was to address basic business operation," Kelly said.

The letter from SCHR states although most of the problems had been addressed, some things still need addressing such as greater availability of public defenders and better courtroom signage.