Warr promises to fix Gulfport court issues

3rd August, 2005
The Sun Herald
Robin Fitzgerald

GULFPORT - Mayor Brent Warr has promised to correct problems that have earned Gulfport Municipal Court the reputation of being "the worst in the state."

In comments at an NAACP meeting Tuesday night, Warr responded to allegations of illegal practices in city court by pledging fairness to all, to include indigent people who can't afford to pay misdemeanor fines within 30 days.

The city, facing a civil lawsuit in federal court, is accused of civil rights violations that include failing to consider defendants' ability to pay, to advise them of their right to an attorney and to accept payment arrangements for the indigent. Those who can't pay their fines go to jail.

"It's my responsibility to fix this," said Warr. "You hired me out of 10 others."

Warr spoke after representatives of the Southern Center for Human Rights shared complaints in a meeting of the Gulfport Branch of the NAACP at the Isiah Fredericks Community Center.

The Southern Center co-filed the lawsuit July 21 after a letter from City Attorney Harry Hewes stated city officials would not meet to discuss the complaints without having details and recommendations.

Hewes attended Tuesday night's meeting. He and the mayor also met with Southern Center representatives earlier Tuesday.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," Sarah Geraghty, a Southern Center attorney, said following the meeting.

The lawsuit, she said, still stands, but resolution outside of court depends on the city's willingness to resolve the problems.

Atteeyah Hollie, a Southern Center paralegal, said she has attended hundreds of court hearings across the state and found the worst practices in Gulfport Municipal Court.

The illegal practices, said Hollie, involve not only people who are homeless, disabled or retarded, but also people who work but need a payment arrangement.

"People's lives are being ruined because of these practices," she said.

Misdemeanor defendants who are jailed for nonpayment of fines receive a credit of $25 a day toward their fines. The city pays the county jail $15 a day to house them.

During the meeting, State Rep. Frances Fredericks, D-Gulfport, asked where the responsibility lies for putting judges in office or taking them out. The mayor nodded his head, indicating he has authority to appoint judges.

"It's embarrassing," Fredericks said later, "especially with Gulfport being the second-largest city in the state."