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Madison and Rankin counties District Attorney Michael Guest, outside the Madison County Justice Court.

Mississippi Moonlighting

Congressional hopeful, district attorney, debt collector.

When District Attorney Michael P. Guest announced his bid for U.S. Congress in a packed courtroom in January, he touted his law and order record. Since 2008, Guest has served as district attorney for Madison and Rankin counties, two majority white and relatively affluent counties in Mississippi.

This story was published in collaboration with The Clarion-Ledger.

Guest said that he has prosecuted 20,000 felony cases and helped claim over $20 million for local law enforcement agencies through the use of civil asset forfeiture. His entire career, he said, has been dedicated to protecting, “citizens from those who would prey upon others.”

One thing Guest did not mention is his other paying job: municipal debt collector. Since 2002, Guest has served as president of Mississippi Court Collections Inc. (MCC), which collects delinquent court fines and fees in at least 20 counties across the state.

In recent years, civil rights advocates in Mississippi have argued that municipal courts’ charging of fines and fees for low level offenses has created a modern version of debtors prisons, where people who can’t afford to pay their fines languish behind bars. The system, they argue, criminalizes poverty and violates citizens’ constitutional right to due process while serving as a revenue generating mechanism for municipalities that are strapped for cash. In Mississippi, where 22 percent of residents live in poverty, according to U.S. Census figures, the issue of fines and fees is the subject of several lawsuits and legislative proposals in the state.

Guest’s involvement in a for-profit collection company is perfectly legal but clashes with the commonly held notion of district attorneys as “public servants” who have given up the chance to earn larger paychecks in the private sector. Instead, Guest profits from a system that many in Mississippi say traps poor people in a cycle of poverty.

In Mississippi, Guest’s connection to MCC is a matter of public record, but many officials said they did not know he was associated with the company. On his financial disclosure form with the Mississippi Ethics Commission, Guest listed himself as a stockholder of the collections agency. But on the company’s annual business filings Guest is consistently listed as president. The Marshall Project reached out to Guest to clarify his relationship to MCC, but he did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Asked by The Clarion-Ledger about this, Guest replied that there was no intent to mislead, saying he is both the president and a stockholder, owning 50 percent of the company. The other owner serves as vice president.

"I don't have anything to do with the day-to-day operations, he said.

In a 2003 interview with a local newspaper, Guest said he first got the idea to create MCC after mulling over the problem of unpaid back fines with his colleagues. At the time, Guest served as the assistant district attorney in Rankin County. Guest’s initial collection contract was for $1.7 million with Simpson County, and since then MCC has expanded its contracts across the state.

To date the company has at least 20 contracts to collect outstanding fines from justice courts throughout Mississippi, though it does not collect fines for Rankin and Madison counties where Guest is DA. Mississippi’s justice courts oversee misdemeanor criminal cases, traffic violations, bond hearings in felony criminal cases, and some civil matters. In several counties, MCC is charged with collecting millions of dollars in unpaid fines.

Mississippi law allows companies like Guest’s to charge an additional 25 percent on top of the initial fine for collecting from state residents, and 50 percent for out-of-state residents. MCC sends letters urging residents to pay their fines or risk arrest. MCC reports its progress to the courts on a 30-day basis. If the fine holders do not pay, MCC warns they could be held in contempt of court, resulting in the court issuing an arrest warrant.

“Collection efforts like these are part of a system that, at least in part, threatens poor people in hopes of shaking the last pennies from their pockets,” said Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at The University of Mississippi. “Telling poor Mississippians that they will be jailed if they don't pay their fines immediately is misleading and heavy-handed.”

In June 2017, the Justice Center settled a class action lawsuit against the city of Jackson, Mississippi for jailing people who failed to pay misdemeanor court fines. The court found the city’s practice violated the defendant’s constitutional rights, citing the 1983 U.S. Supreme Court case, Bearden v. Georgia, that established individuals can not be jailed for nonpayment of fines without a meaningful inquiry into their ability to pay.

Similar lawsuits are pending in other counties in Mississippi. Civil rights groups in several states throughout the South, including Mississippi’s nearest neighbors, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Alabama, have successfully sued the courts to stop the practice of jailing people for failing to pay their fines.

The issue of fines and fees came into sharp relief in 2015, as a result of a Justice Department investigation into the police department in Ferguson, Missouri where police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown. The DOJ found the police department routinely targeted African American drivers, pulling them over at twice the rate of white drivers. Additionally, the report found that the municipal court system served as a revenue generating mechanism for the city.

A year later, the DOJ sent guidelines to local courts cautioning them against issuing burdensome fines to poor defendants, asserting that issuing steep fines for minor offenses often traps poor people into an endless cycle of poverty and erodes trust between local government and the people it is sworn to serve. The current attorney general, Jeff Sessions, recently rescinded the Obama-era guidance.

During the 2017 legislative session, local lawmakers passed a bipartisan bill that would have ended automatic incarceration following the nonpayment of fines or court costs. But Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant vetoed the bill over a separate provision that would have allowed some repeat offenders early release.

Other efforts to address disparities in the justice system have proved more fruitful. In December 2017, the Southern Poverty Law Center settled with Mississippi’s Department of Public Safety to reinstate more than 100,000 drivers licenses that were suspended for a failure to pay fines. SPLC argued that suspending licenses disproportionately affected poor residents, especially those in rural areas with limited public transportation.

For Myesha Braden, Director for the Criminal Justice Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, who is working on similar issues in Arkansas, Alabama, and Louisiana, Guest’s involvement in the fines and fees collection business is unsettling. It is a reminder that personal financial interests can run counter to the rising political will to reform the criminal justice system throughout the region.

“You have to ask the question,” said Braden, “as DA, when there have been opportunities to reform, what has he had to say in those meetings?”