April 25, 2018 10:26:47 AM
Omar Beard has been in the Lowndes County Adult Detention Center since March 2012.
The 34-year-old from Columbus was one of a handful of people arrested and charged with capital murder in an armed robbery-turned-murder of a disabled man in July 2011. Of the approximately 218 inmates locked up in Lowndes County's jail, Beard is among those who have been there longest, Jail Administrator Capt. Ryan Rickert said.
While Beard's stay at the jail might be longer than most, it's not unique for inmates awaiting trial in Mississippi. Of the 218 inmates at Lowndes County -- a number which includes jail trustees who have already been convicted and are waiting out their sentence in their home county instead of one of the state prisons -- 27 total have been there longer than 90 days, Rickert said.
"A lot of them are here because of mental exams, waiting on beds," Rickert said. "A lot of them just don't bond out."
It's a statewide phenomenon. The MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law recently released a survey to The Associated Press that said more than one-third of the state's defendants awaiting trial have been waiting in jail more than 90 consecutive days. A 2013 census by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics said Mississippi had the second-highest number of local jail inmates and that an average pretrial jail stay in Mississippi was 40 days, the AP reported.
In Oktibbeha County Jail, 29 of the 90 inmates have been there longer than 90 days, said Lt. Brett Watson with the Oktibbeha County Sheriff's Office. Of those 29, two are awaiting court-ordered mental examinations. The inmate who has been there longest was charged in a November 2016 murder.
In Clay County Jail, its' 29 out 91 inmates.
Public Defender Donna Smith said it's typical for her clients to have been in jail three to four months because bonds set in justice or municipal court are often significantly higher than the bonds set by circuit court -- meaning the suspects have to be indicted on the charge before they can make bond. Even then, sometimes bond is simply too expensive for those in poverty.
"Five thousand dollars is the minimum bond on most charges in this circuit district," she said. "And ... it takes about $500 to get out of jail on that. When you have (about) 61 percent of the county living below poverty, $500 is a lot of money.
"If they have jobs, they lose their jobs," she added. "If they have small children, a lot of times they're being taken by DHS (Department of Human Services). They can't support their families. ... Not to mention their right to liberty. They haven't been found guilty of anything. They have a right to liberty."
Locally, inmate housing costs as much as $40 per inmate, per day according to jail officials, excluding medical costs.
Problems and solutions
Another issue, both in the Golden Triangle and statewide, is the number of inmates awaiting mental examinations. The AP reported 90 to 100 inmates at any given time need evaluations, often waiting months and some even years, according to Dr. Tom Recore, a forensic psychiatrist with the state Department of Mental Health.
"There are 15 beds for 82 counties," Recore told The AP. "If that sounds like it's not a lot, your ears are not deceiving you."
Clay County Sheriff Eddie Scott said one inmate arrested on charges of kidnapping, aggravated assault and simple assault on a police officer has just been declared mentally competent to stand trial. He's been in jail since August of 2014.
"It's common," he said. "... You may have to wait six months to a year to even get them examined. It just slows the whole process down."
In another case, it took 12 years for a Clay County inmate to be declared mentally incompetent to stand trial. Steven Jessie Harris was arrested in 2005 for murder, two counts of kidnapping and aggravated assault on law enforcement officers. He was incarcerated in the county jail and finally released last summer.
Watson agreed waiting on mental evaluations is a problem in Oktibbeha County.
"That's one of our biggest concerns in law enforcement right now is there is no place to put the criminally, mentally ill," Watson said.
The AP reported that a new pilot program in the state is allowing mental health professionals to treat inmates directly in two county jails, though neither of them are in the Golden Triangle.
Scott and Watson also said it's often up to public defenders to help lower bail and get hearings more quickly, but public defenders in the state are limited in their resources.
"I can't speak statewide, ... but what is typically more of a problem for most public defenders, except for those four or five counties who have an office of the public defender, is we have no resources," Smith said. "We don't have investigators. We don't have secretaries. We don't have anything but us."
District Attorney Scott Colom said his office "absolutely" works to prioritize people still in jail when looking at what cases to try. But with high numbers of defendants awaiting trial and limited numbers of judges and courtrooms, it can be easy for the legal system to get clogged up with old cases.
"You only have so many weeks a year to try cases and you only have so many judges," he said. "That's already a problem."
Still, he pointed out Lowndes County may get a new courtroom in the next few years, which would allow all three circuit court judges to try cases during every court term. He also pointed out that the state forensic lab has recently hired more employees to help process the amounts of evidence. The lab has been backed up, Colom said, which slows down indictments in murder charges because attorneys often have to wait months and even up to a year for autopsy results.
That's especially important because murder cases are the ones in which bond amounts are set in the hundreds of thousands.
"That's the type of bond a lot of people aren't going to be able to make," Colom said.
Statewide, the AP reported, 2,500 defendants have been in jail more than 90 days. More than 600 of those have been in jail longer than a year.
Associated Press reporter Jeff Amy contributed to this report.
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