Rights: Custody ‘crisis’ another topic for jail planners

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 11, 2009

It’s eerily convenient that the City of Vicksburg’s sudden impulse to adhere to the letter of criminal procedure law as set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court also works to save the city treasury money while possibly costing Warren County’s treasury more.

The facts are these:

* When a person is arrested on a felony charge by municipal police, unless a judicial warrant was issued for the arrest, the person being detained has a federal constitutional right to be taken before a neutral and detached authority (a judge) and be informed of the charge as soon as possible, but in no case more than 48 hours. The judge is also to make an independent determination whether probable cause existed for the arrest. (It’s a very preliminary matter.)

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* As that standard is practiced here, until the matter is reviewed by a judge, the housing and feeding of such a detainee is a municipal responsibility. Because the state prosecutes felonies (and counties are the local arm of the state), the responsibility for housing and feeding a detainee shifts to the county as soon as a determination of probable cause for detention is made.

This is not new law. It has existed for many decades.

Truth is, sometimes it has been skirted here. A person jailed here on a Friday night for, say, third-offense shoplifting downtown, might not have had his or her right to appear before a judge honored until Monday morning, even Tuesday if Monday was a holiday.

As a remedy, Municipal Judge Walterine Langford has begun weekend sessions of court.

The problem, says Warren County Sheriff Martin Pace, is that when she finds a person lawfully detained, Pace has no staff on duty on Saturdays, Sundays or holidays, to process prisoners from city to county custody. Further, if the jail is filled, as it most often is, he has to take deputies off patrol to drive the detainee to one of the other area jails Vicksburg and Warren County routinely use. Pace said he has no money to hire more people or pay overtime. And, he points out, court services officers don’t work weekends because every court in Mississippi — except Vicksburg Municipal Court — is closed those days.

This is not a situation without a solution. It is a problem to put on the plate of those who will be working this year with the consulting firm Warren County has hired to guide construction of a new detention facility. Part of that process — a big part — is developing an operational plan based on a needs assessment.

While supervisors and city officials might approach gigging each other financially as sport, the fact is they do so at the public’s expense. Residents support both treasuries.

The rights of arrested people should never be taken lightly. They must, as Judge Langford says, be protected. A streamlined staffing plan could accomplish that while actually reducing costs. And if city and county officials would see fit to adopt a spirit of cooperation, that’s what could happen.