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Contempt policy targets offenders

NATCHEZ — If an offender lives here, go after them first. If they owe restitution, they are second priority. If they owe a lot of money, consider them a prime target. Lastly, go after those who live out-of-state.

Those are the guidelines for prioritization the Adams County Board of Supervisors adopted Monday in the form of a new policy directing the Adams County Justice Court staff how to arrange contempt hearings for defendants whose court fines are delinquent.

The issue of collecting the $3.84 million in late justice court fines has been a sore one in recent months, with the court clerk, Audrey Bailey, and one of the judges, Charlie Vess, apparently disagreeing — or at least not communicating — on how to go about setting the contempt hearings meant to collect the fines.

The policy adopted Monday was developed with input from both Vess and Bailey, Board of Supervisor’s Attorney Scott Slover said.

In addition to prioritizing to whom the notices will be sent, the policy specifies that — while the judge or the clerk have the right to schedule a day for contempt hearings — both should notify the other of when contempt hearings are scheduled at least 45 days in advance.

It also specifies that the justice court judges should be given an updated list of those who owe fines for the previous three years each quarter, and from that list the judge may order a contempt hearing. If the judge does not issue an order from the list provided, the clerk should send out notices from the list following the priorities the board provided.

The policy likewise states that the clerk must present the judge with a bench warrant for all defendants who fail to appear after their notice was sent, though the judge does not have to issue the warrant; the form the clerk will provide will give the judge an opportunity to detail why he or she did not issue a bench warrant. The new policy also requires the clerk to give a monthly report to the supervisors about the contempt hearings.

Bailey declined to comment about the new policy Monday.

The policy also has recommended guidelines for the judges, though Slover said as elected officials the board cannot actually direct the judges to do anything.

The supervisors recommended that the judges make all fines immediately due upon sentencing, and if defendants are unable to pay right away the judge delay sentencing until the defendant is able to appear before the court with the necessary fines or restitution. If the sentencing is not delayed and the defendants are given a payment schedule, the supervisors recommended that the defendants be given a court date by which they will have paid their fines or will have to appear to explain why it has not been paid.

Those who do not make the payment or appear on the court-appointed date should have a bench warrant issued for their arrest, the policy advises. The calendar tracking when those who have been given a return date will be kept by the clerk.

“(If a defendant) can show the court that they are basically indigent or poor and we set up some kind of payment plan, if they skip two months, somebody should tell me so I can figure out if there has been a problem, like they have been in the hospital or have died or something,” Vess said.

The judge also said that while he was open to guidance from the board, he didn’t necessarily think that demanding a full payment of fines at sentencing was always the right choice.

“Any judge will tell you that just putting somebody in jail will not necessarily elicit the fines,” he said. “Some will make a good-faith effort and do something, if they are making an effort to pay the fine, then I don’t think it is fair to just body slam them randomly in jail.”

The judge said he believes the clerk’s office can send out two or three notices a day and within a month have 40 to 50 people coming in for contempt hearings.

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