Officials: Gulfport’s courts now the busiest in the state

Published 7:29 pm Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Crooked contractors and opportunistic transients that descended on the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina have helped make Gulfport’s courts the busiest in the state, officials say.

Gulfport’s municipal court system is now trying to handle the state’s largest volume of cases with about half the staff of larger cities like Jackson. City officials said the court handled 44,000 citations last year.

“I think (the volume) is going to grow,” said John R. Kelly, who became court administrator in March. “Our docket is clearly increasing.”

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Kelly attributed the increase to crimes committed by an influx of transient workers, repeat offenders and shady contractors. But Police Chief Alan Weatherford said new crime-fighting measures also have contributed to the increase.

The city has been using the so-called “broken window” method of policing, in which officers aggressively pursue criminals at all levels — from those who have broken windows to drug dealers.

“When you do that and you’re proactive, I would think you’d have an increased load in your docket,” said Weatherford, adding that code officers and other city departments also have contributed to the court’s volume.

Kelly is getting creative to help alleviate the problem. Rather than jailing people who have outstanding misdemeanor fines, he plans to recommend a community service program that would allow the offenders to pay off the fines at a rate of $6.50 an hour.

Other offenders could be placed on house arrest rather than in a jail cell, he said.

The move could also help the city avoid a repeat of a federal civil lawsuit that accused city officials of running a modern-day “debtors’ prison” by aggressively putting those with misdemeanor fines in jail.

Kelly, who was hired after the lawsuit was filed, said that any appearance that the changes he is making are related to the suit is purely coincidental.

“I know practically nothing about the suit,” he said. “My goal was to make the municipal court of Gulfport the best-run municipal court in the country.”

City Attorney Harry Hewes said the suit has been put on hold because of Katrina.